13 Secrets of Obituary Writers

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iStock

When Chicago Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O’Donnell sits down to assess the lives of the recently departed, she feels less like a journalist and more like a historian. “I sometimes feel like I’m a frustrated history teacher,” she tells Mental Floss. “I get to teach a lesson every day and share it with readers.”

Unlike death notices, which only recite basic facts about the deceased, or funeral eulogies, which offer impassioned remembrances from loved ones, obituaries are a written memorial of a person’s legacy published for the world to see. Instead of dwelling on death they celebrate life, from the most recognizable celebrity to the quietest neighbor. They prove that almost everyone has a story to tell, and it’s sometimes only after a passing that people realize exactly how a person has left their mark in the world.

O’Donnell recalls a 2010 death notice for a Montana resident named Jim Cole, which mentioned his interest in photographing grizzly bears. Only after excavating details of his life did she realize Cole is the only person in North America to survive two grizzly attacks, 14 years apart. “They called him Grizzly Jim,” she says. “He wore an eyepatch because the second attack left him without an eye.” (Cole died of natural, not wildlife-related, causes at age 60.)

For more on how obituary writers approach the delicate art of human posterity, we asked several of them—including O’Donnell—to tell us about their work. Here’s what they had to say about a life spent covering death.

1. THEY LOOK FOR THE “ROSEBUD” MOMENT.

John Pope, who writes for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and assembled a book of obituaries, Getting Off at Elysian Fields, says that the goal of his work is to discover the “Rosebud” moment of an individual’s life. (That's a reference to the 1941 film Citizen Kane, and the desire of a reporter to define the mysterious dying word uttered by wealthy business magnate Kane.) “I look for ‘Rosebud,’ what makes a person tick,” he says. “When you talk to relatives, they talk about how he loved family, how he loved life, but you need to keep going and dig deeper.”

In 2009, Pope was tasked with profiling William Terral, a beloved pediatrician and gardening hobbyist. While the former was a noble career, Pope found his real jewel in the fact that Terral was once so struck by the bag of plasma separated from his blood during a medical procedure that he took it home, hung it from an IV hook, and pumped the liquid into the ground to see if it would help his garden grow. “His hibiscus flourished,” Pope says. So did his obituary.

2. IT’S ACTUALLY A PRETTY UPLIFTING JOB.

The stereotype of obituary writers toiling under the shadow of death, constantly aware of the fragile nature of life, isn’t exactly accurate. According to Pope, some family members have such fond memories of the deceased that talking to them can provoke a lot of amusement. “With Edward ‘Bud Rip’ Ripoll, a saloonkeeper, I had to ask his daughter to stop because I was laughing so hard and the stories were so good,” he says. (Ripoll was a Budweiser fan, and his urn was inscribed with the dedication, “This Bud’s for you.”)

O’Donnell describes it as “uplifting” work. “You’re frequently writing about people who made a difference in the world, large or small. The end of life is always sorrowful, but with someone like Mary White, who lived to be 93 and started the La Leche League [to normalize public breastfeeding] in her living room that now has tens of millions of members across the globe, that’s inspiring.”

3. THEY SOMETIMES KNOW WHEN DEATH IS IMMINENT.

Yellow flowers sit on top of a coffin
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Obituary writers have all kinds of information channels when it comes to mortality. Funeral homes may call to notify them; death notices in their paper or in another might provide a clue that a lesser-known person’s life is worth investigating further. Or they may simply be tipped off that the end is near. “For Barbara Harris, who was a founding member of Second City, one of my co-workers heard she was ill,” O’Donnell says. “I was able to prepare the obituary in advance, so when the time came, there was something comprehensive for readers available.”

Other times, that information can be a little off. When an editor was sure a prominent celebrity was going to die, Pope was told to prepare a lengthy obituary. “It was Paul Prudhomme, a chef who a line editor was convinced was going to launch to glory at any moment," Pope says. “He died 27 years later.”

4. THEY NEED TO BE READY FOR AN EMOTIONAL DELUGE.

Mike Bodine, who writes for the Sheet in Mammoth Lakes, California, says that an obituary writer will often be the first person a relative of the deceased has spoken to in depth about a loved one’s passing. “They can be really distraught,” he says. “It’s a matter of waiting it out while people just let their heart out. You can’t always use what they’re saying, but just listening and being patient can help open people up. It can feel a little bit like handling the body itself. You don’t want to push people.”

5. THEY CAN GET CAUGHT UP IN FAMILY SQUABBLES.

Phoning family members to collect memories of the recently deceased can be a sobering experience. Bodine says that children of the deceased can sometimes try to use an obituary to vent about personal vendettas. “When someone has passed and a lot of money and kids are involved, it can turn into animosity,” he says. “Someone will say a sibling is screwing them over on money. It’s just distortion you have to wade through.”

6. FAMILIES CAN GET UPSET AT THEM.

While an obituary writer’s job is to celebrate life, that doesn't mean they exclude the less-flattering components. When he was writing about a local politician, Pope discovered that he had once been to prison for misappropriating campaign funds. When he mentioned that in the obituary, the man’s daughter phoned in an uproar. “She asked why we were doing that. I told her it was because it was the truth.”

O’Donnell has had similar experiences. “Unfortunately, in Chicago, a lot of politicians have been investigated and convicted of corruption," she says. "It gets reported at the time it happened and readers would have known about it. It would be a disingenuous, fraud obituary if you didn’t include it.”

7. OTHER TIMES, PEOPLE LIE.

Family members may also omit certain facts. Because obituaries are perceived as the last word on many people, relatives and friends sometimes lean into the idea it should be a hagiography. “With [socialite] Mickey Easterling, no one was going to tell me her age,” Pope says. “I had to cite public records, which I’ve never had to do before.” On another occasion, the deceased’s loved ones refused to inform Pope that a suicide had occurred. He found out the truth months later, after listing the cause of death as “undetermined” in the obituary.

8. IT’S BETTER TO DIE ON CERTAIN DAYS THAN OTHERS.

A death certificate sits on top of a table
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If you want a well-read obituary, try to die on a Friday. According to Pope, people who expire that day of the week are more likely to be targeted for inclusion in the Sunday edition of the paper, which affords more space and more time for the obituary writer to do a thorough job. “Dying on a Friday will get you more play on a Sunday,” he says. Holidays are also ill-advised times to make an exit, as reporters with dedicated beats (politics, movies, sports) aren’t usually around to assist in reporting notable deaths in those fields, and readership is down.

While you'd think the dying and their associates would have more pressing issues, sometimes they prioritize that recognition: In 1936, King George V's physician injected the monarch with enough morphine and cocaine to hasten his death in time for the next morning's papers, rather than the less-desirable evening editions.

9. PEOPLE CAN BE A LITTLE NERVOUS AROUND THEM.

When an obituary writer becomes well-known in the community, their very presence can portend bad news. If Pope needs to phone someone for any reason other than someone’s passing, he’ll sometimes begin the call by saying, “It’s Pope. No one died.”

That slight unease can work both ways. Once, Pope walked into a social gathering where three people whose obituaries he had already written and banked for future use were standing. “I just kind of stopped,” he says.

10. THEY GET INVITED TO FUNERALS.

Obituaries are often treasured by families who appreciate how a writer has summarized and memorialized the deceased. Sometimes, that gratitude can extend to invitations to come to the funeral. “That happens with some frequency,” O’Donnell says. “I went to the services for a rock concert roadie, who I didn’t know, but he worked a lot of rock concerts I went to the in 1970s. I met a lot of people there who went to the same concerts.”

Other times, they’ll be dispatched to cover the funeral for the purposes of writing a piece. “I went to Al Copeland’s funeral, the founder of Popeyes Chicken,” Pope says. “There were 24 white Bentleys, a horse-drawn hearse, and a band playing ‘My Way.’” The solemn music continued until the procession reached the grave, at which point they broke into “Love That Chicken From Popeyes.”

11. CERTAIN PHRASES CAN ANNOY THEM.

Work the death beat long enough and certain recurring phrases begin to wear on a writer’s patience. Pope dislikes using the term the late to precede a decedent’s name. “What’s the point?” he says. “Can we get over that?” He also dislikes funeral service because “it’s redundant,” and avoids using “natural causes” as the reason for a death whenever possible, because it's non-specific. "Always get the cause of death," he says.

12. SOME PEOPLE USE OBITS TO TAKE REVENGE.

A highlighter is run over the word 'revenge'
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O’Donnell says she's struck by the more contemporary practice of “revenge” obituaries, which are penned by family members and tend to criticize their departed relative for allegations relating to abuse or other personal reasons that have prompted a vendetta. Pope recalls a time when a widow sent in a death notice to his paper claiming her late husband’s law firm had sent him to an early grave. “We spent a day with lawyers de-fanging it,” he says.

13. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN AWARDS SHOW CALLED “THE GRIMMYS.”

Acting as a kind of unofficial trade organization, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers invites devotees of the dead to exchange information on their work and attend functions like ObitCon. Each year, awards—known as the Grimmys—are awarded for best long- and short-form obituaries, as well as for lifetime achievement. The trophy resembles a tombstone. “I was nominated last year,” Pope says.

10 Secrets of User Experience Designers

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iStock/RossHelen

While you may be able to recognize and appreciate the work of graphic designers, fashion designers, and architects in your everyday life, you may not think too often about experience designers. But user experience (UX) designers have a huge impact on the products most of us use every day, especially digital products like smartphone apps and websites. A UX designer is in charge of how you interact with a product and the overall experience: What features does it offer? When you click a button on an app or website, where does it take you? Can you find that button? How many clicks should it take to put in your credit card information or sign up for a new account? How easy is it to figure out how to share a link or invite a friend? It’s a UX designer's job to figure that stuff out.

Mental Floss interviewed four people who work as UX designers to find out more about their job. Jonny Mack, a Seattle-based freelance designer, previously worked at Google designing products like Chrome OS and has since worked on projects such as Coinbase Wallet, a cryptocurrency app. Rob Hamblen is a design director at the Berlin design agency AJ&Smart and has worked with clients like Adidas, Twitter, and Mercedes-Benz. Talin Wadsworth is the senior UX design lead for Adobe XD—the user experience design software that UX designers use to create prototypes—and Nina Boesch is a senior interaction designer at Local Projects, a New York-based studio that designs (among other things) museum experiences for institutions like the American Museum of Natural History.

Here are 10 secrets you might not know about the job, from the user features UX designers hate to the reason they hope you never notice their work.

1. THE DEFINITION OF A UX DESIGNER VARIES A LOT …

Not everyone who works as a UX designer has a similar job description. Some handle a wide breadth of tasks, from coming up with product features to prototyping to designing user testing to writing code. Others might be more specialized, overseeing other designers, researchers, and engineers as they work on individual aspects of the design process. Some are also involved in user interface design—known as UI—creating the visual look and feel of a product. “The range of skills across UX designers is pretty varied,” Mack explains. “Some people call themselves UX designers and they’re extremely technical. They’re actually doing a lot of engineering and front-end development. There are other people who call themselves UX designers who don’t write code and don’t even design much, who are doing a lot of research and usability stuff.”

"At a startup, I would define a UX designer as a generalist,” Mack says. “They would be working with a product manager and an engineer to define what the product even is.” They will help figure out what features a product will have and what features it won’t have, and might create a prototype. They’ll do interviews with potential users, asking them to test the prototype to determine whether people can actually use it as the designers envisioned. They might even be writing the code and designing the interface of the site or app.

“In a large company like, for example, Google, you had specialists for each of the things I mentioned,” he explains. There would be a dedicated usability researcher who would conduct those interviews and user tests as well as a team of prototypers and visual designers who would actually make the product, among other roles. In that kind of environment, the UX designer acts as more of a manager, helping determine what the product should be and guiding the project through the creation process.

2. THERE ARE A LOT OF MEETINGS.

Designers don’t spend all day at their desks sketching out ideas. It’s an intensely collaborative job—sometimes to a fault. “When I worked at Google,” Mack says, “I spent very little of my time actually designing—probably four to six hours a week at most, and that time happened either early in the morning, late in the evening, or on weekends, because all day was filled with meetings.”

Wadsworth, too, spends a lot of time meeting with other people rather than working on his own. His team typically has daily check-ins or critique sessions together. “The perception of the lone designer is not true,” he says. He tries to carve out an hour here or an hour there to work through ideas on his own, but says the rest of his time is spent collaborating and talking about ideas in meetings or on Slack or during formal research sessions. For him, that’s not a bad thing. “Some of my favorite moments are when someone’s passing by and I just grab them and get them to give me their take on something—that’s where a lot of the more ‘aha’ moments come from.”

3. IF THEY DO THEIR JOB WELL, YOU NEVER THINK ABOUT THEM.

The UX designer’s role is almost entirely behind the scenes. While you may admire how pretty an interface looks, you probably don’t think too much about the process that helps you get from Point A to Point B in an app. And that's a good thing.

As Hamblen puts it, “If you have done your job properly, you can design an interface where the user has no friction whatsoever. If the UX designer has done their job as well, [users] will be able to achieve their goal without thinking about it.” That goal might be buying something on a website, checking your account balance on your bank app, finding that “share” button, or otherwise understanding how to navigate the product you’re trying to use.

“In a way, we are working on deliverables, no one, other than our team or the client, will ever see,” Boesch says. “We are putting diagrams and storyboards in front of clients, we are providing our developers with wireframes and sitemaps,” but the end user isn’t going to see that work. Unless, of course, they do their job poorly, and their product or experience is hard to use—at which point a user might start to wonder what's going on behind the scenes, and why the product isn't easier to navigate.

4. THEY HATE TUTORIALS.

Mack hates to see multi-step user tutorials pop up the minute you open a consumer app, calling it “aggressive handholding.” Ideally, users should be able to figure out how to navigate and explore the features baked into an app or website without any special instruction, just by intuition and context. “I get the impetus to teach people, ‘Hey, here’s what this is,’ but you can teach people through use,” he says. “If you’re having to train people, it’s probably a failure of design.”

For instance, if you’re spending a ton of time trying to figure out how to buy a train ticket from a machine in the station, it’s the designer’s fault, not yours. “Most public kiosks, such as ticket machines at subway and train stations, hurt my eyes and my faith in the respective authorities,” Boesch explains. “If it takes me more than a minute to understand the interface and get my ticket then the UX/UI design failed. Most ATMs are pretty awful, too. In a perfect world, it wouldn't take more than 20 seconds to get money out of an ATM.”

One app that Mack says does this especially well is Todoist, the to-do list and task manager app. “It’s so simple at first glance, but it’s like an iceberg of complexity.” You might open it thinking you’re just going to write down a to-do list, but then realize you can assign priority to certain items, share them, comment on them, nest tasks within other tasks, assign deadlines and then snooze them, and more. “If I were to write all these features down in a document, you’d read it and you’d say, ‘This is the most complicated to-do app ever.’ But when you’re looking at it, it just looks simple and easy.”

5. DESIGNERS HAVE TO WORK VERY QUICKLY.

For Wadsworth, creating a new prototype for Adobe XD usually takes between three and six months, but that doesn’t mean the team is working at a leisurely pace. “The pace at which we work is pretty frenetic,” he says. While students in design school have the luxury of developing concepts and ideas for projects over a long period, professional designers have to make those decisions much more quickly. “We’ve committed to developing features every month” with Adobe XD, he explains.

Hamblen’s work at AJ&Smart is particularly fast-paced. The firm specializes in “design sprints,” a five-day, intensive prototyping process that’s designed to be an accelerated way for companies to solve a particular problem or come up with a product. In that environment, the initial UX design might need to be completed within just one day so that the design can be prototyped and tested by users by the end of the week.

6. THEY MIGHT NOT HAVE AS MANY USER TESTS AS YOU THINK.

User testing is a vital part of the design process. Designers might create something they think is genius, but if a normal user can’t figure it out, it’s worthless. But while you might imagine that a new product would be tested with dozens of potential users, in all likelihood, it’s a lot less than that. The standard size of a test group is just five people.

“It might not seem like that’s enough people, but there’s a lot of field research that’s gone into [that number]," Hamblen says. A group of five people is big enough to generate useful feedback, but small enough to support tight budgets and quick turnarounds. After two or three user reviews, you start to see patterns in the feedback, but the fifth user might not see something blatantly obvious to others—representing a population that’s not all that tech-savvy, for instance. These test reviewers are typically recruited based on what the hoped-for user base of a product, which could be something like "parents of small children," or "20- to 30-year-olds," or "people who use online banks," or any other kind of characteristic or demographic the company is looking to target.

7. THEY NEED AT LEAST SOME TECHNICAL KNOW-HOW.

UX designers often work very closely with developers, so they need to at least understand the basics of writing code. “A designer needs to understand the core concepts of code for whatever platform they’re designing for,” Wadsworth says, in order to have an idea of the constraints and possibilities of a particular product. “I myself have taken an iOS development boot camp,” he explains. “I’m not doing that as my daily job, but it helps me be a better designer.”

“You do have to have a good understanding of the tasks a developer would have to do," Hamblen says. You can create the most beautiful interfaces in the world, but if your engineers can't translate it into code, it's not going to happen. "I’ve seen designers create stuff that’s impossible to build or just makes the developers' lives so much harder."

8. USERS CAN BE VERY PASSIONATE.

When you’re working on updating a design that’s part of something people use every day, even little tweaks can be a big deal. When Wadsworth and his team change something about Adobe XD, it impacts how creative professionals do their jobs. “People have very strong opinions about that,” Wadsworth says. “More so than just ‘They changed that button from green to blue,’ they’re like, ‘You changed something that was a built-in part of my process and now I’m going to have to relearn something.' There’s a lot of pressure.”

“Whenever I’m out there talking about my job, I show a picture of a woman who has the toolbar from Photoshop tattooed on her arm,” he explains. “That’s how strongly creatives take their tools.”

9. YOU MIGHT BE ABLE TO SEE THEIR FINGERPRINTS IN UNEXPECTED PLACES.

Good UX design may be subtle, but that doesn’t mean UX designers are totally invisible in their work. “I’m in the tutorial file of [Adobe] XD,” Wadsworth says. If you open the sample file designed to help you learn how to use the software, you’re following along with his work. “I’m the designer you can jump in and design along with,” he explains, and the app you watch him create has a personal connection for him. "I’m originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, and so the app that we designed to be the app you learn along with me inside XD is all based on my formative years growing up around national parks in the West.”

10. THEIR WORK ISN’T BUILT TO LAST.

“My life’s work will be gone when I’m old,” Mack says. “I will look back at all the work I’ve done as a UX designer and I won’t be able to go and touch any of it or use any of it—it will all be redone.” Regular product updates, aesthetic trends, and technological change mean that when you’re creating something for the web or mobile devices, it’s not going to stay the same for very long. If you create a website now, you probably aren’t going to be able to go back and look at your work in 10 years. That ephemerality isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. “There’s something I like about it,” he says. “It’s like theater.”

15 Secrets of Courtroom Sketch Artists

Kim Ludbrook, AFP/Getty Images
Kim Ludbrook, AFP/Getty Images

After aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped and found dead in 1932, perpetrator Bruno Hauptmann was brought to justice—and cameras followed. So many lit up the courtroom during Hauptmann's trial and eventual conviction that the American Bar Association successfully lobbied to ban photographers from proceedings due to the distraction. Some 30 years later, during the trial of Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer, Jack Ruby, CBS found a solution. They hired illustrator Howard Brodie to capture Ruby’s expressions.

The rest is history, most of it rendered in charcoal and watercolor. Courtroom sketch artists go where cameras cannot, recording the often-tense atmospheres of high-profile judicial cases featuring the likes of Charles Manson, Bernie Madoff, and Michael Jackson. On tight deadlines, these artists use their craft to communicate the emotions of a courtroom.

But being talented isn’t enough. Speed is essential, and so is finding just the right scene to encapsulate an entire day or trial. “It’s difficult to do,” says Mona Shafer Edwards, a courtroom illustrator in California. “It’s not a cartoon, it’s not caricature, it’s not a portrait. It’s capturing a moment in time.”

To get a better sense of what goes into their work, Mental Floss spoke with three of the most celebrated artists working today. Here’s what they had to say about drawing conclusions to some of history’s biggest stories.

1. THEY HAVE TO DRAW AROUND OBSTACLES.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams featuring Teresa Giudice
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Imagine sitting down to sketch a friend and finding that someone has placed a column, screen, or body directly in your field of vision. Now imagine that if you can’t capture this person’s likeness, you don’t get paid. That’s the most common problem faced by courtroom sketch artists, who frequently have to navigate around obstacles in order to get a glimpse of their subject—often the defendant, attorney, or judge. “You generally have to wait for someone to lean over,” says Elizabeth Williams, an artist based in New York who works for CNBC and the Associated Press, among others. (Most artists are hired by the larger news outlets.) “Fortunately, people aren’t potted plants, and they do move.” If they don’t, Williams will move around the courtroom herself, trying to secure a better vantage point. During pleas and sentencing—and depending on the judge—she might be allowed to sit with other reporters in the jury box.

If visual obstacles remain a problem, some artists might turn to family members. Vicki Ellen Behringer, who works out of California for clients including CBS and Fox, says she once used the father of a defendant as a reference when she couldn’t see his son. “I had studied his son’s face and the father reminded me of what he looks like,” she says. “They looked so much alike.”

2. YOUNGER PEOPLE ARE HARDER TO DRAW.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer featuring Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and his attorney
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

For Behringer, faces with plenty of distinguishing features are a gift. “I love glasses, I love facial hair, lots of wrinkles, anything that shows character,” she says. “The most difficult thing is doing someone fairly young and good-looking. They don’t have lines on their face.” Behringer cites the sketch of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski (above), seated with his attorney. While Kaczynski's weathered look was easy to render, his lawyer—younger and relatively unlined—was much harder to capture.

3. MORNINGS ARE BETTER FOR THEM.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams features Bernie Madoff accomplice Frank DiPascali being led away in handcuffs
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Sketch artists work in a pressure cooker environment. They’re often called to court by news agencies on a day’s notice or less and need to render their drawings quickly. If a crucial moment in a trial happens in the late afternoon, artists may have as little as an hour to finish coloring their piece before scanning and sending it to the news outlets that have contracted the work. “There’s a lot of pressure to turn it around quickly” in time for the evening newscasts, Williams says. If something transpires in the morning, she has more time to refine the work. “Nobody’s really breathing down your back then.”

4. THEY CATCH HEAT FOR CELEBRITY RENDERINGS.

A courtoom sketch by artist Mona Shafer Edwards depicts Gwyneth Paltrow testifying during a trial
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Because celebrities are familiar to people, seeing a court sketch that doesn’t seem to line up can be disconcerting. But according to Edwards, that’s because celebrities aren’t necessarily putting their best face forward. “I was pilloried for making Gwyneth Paltrow look unattractive,” she says, referring to the actress’s appearance (above) during a 2016 trial to testify against Dante Michael Soiu, a man accused of stalking her. (He was acquitted.) “She had no make-up on, wore a beige turtleneck, and her nose was red from crying.” Paltrow’s fans criticized Edwards for the unflattering likeness.

5. THEY SOMETIMES REARRANGE THE COURTROOM ON PAPER.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer depicts players in the 2012 Apple v. Samsung trial
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

According to Williams, some news outlets have strict guidelines about how sketch artists interpret a court scene. The Associated Press, for example, doesn’t allow artists to mess with the proximity of one person to another. If a defendant is four feet from his or her attorney, Williams can’t have their shoulders touching. But other outlets allow for artistic license. “Sometimes you can’t get everything you want and be accurate, so you squish it together,” Behringer says. “You sometimes want the defendant in the same sketch as a judge, or to move the defense and prosecution tables closer together.”

6. THEY SELL THEIR WORK TO ATTORNEYS.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams depicts attorney Robert Hillard in a 2016 trial examining the possible fault of General Motors in a motor vehicle accident
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Like big game hunters, lawyers enjoy a trophy. Some attorneys in high-profile case will approach Williams asking to purchase a sketch that she rendered. “I’ve sold my work to a number of attorneys,” she says. “Generally speaking, they only want it when they win.” Behringer says that some attorneys fresh out of law school will specifically request she come into court to sketch them. “I guess it might be to show parents you’ve finished law school.”

The Library of Congress even has a collection of 96 courtroom drawings from famous trials, with illustrations by Williams among them. They were purchased with funds from the noted L.A. laywer Thomas V. Girardi, best known for working on the California environmental contamination case involving Erin Brockovich.

7. SOMETIMES SUBJECTS ASK FOR A MAKEOVER.

Courtroom sketch artist Mona Shafer Edwards depicts the trial of the Menendez Brothers
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Edwards is sometimes approached by defense attorneys or other jurists and asked if her work could be a little more flattering. “Men will come up to me and ask me to give them more hair or make them look thinner or better-looking,” she says. “It’s never women asking for me to take weight off or whatever. It’s always men.”

8. POLKA DOTS AND BARS ARE BAD NEWS.

A courtroom sketch by Vickie Ellen Behringer depicts accused Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo in 2018
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

Sketch artists need to spend their time capturing and refining emotions and moods. If defendants are wearing prints, it can be exasperating. “White polka dots on dark clothing can be hard to do in watercolor,” Behringer says. “Stripes, too. You don’t want to waste energy into making the clothing accurate. I’d rather put that time into the face. It can be frustrating.” Another Behringer pet peeve: bars. In California, some defendants are arraigned in a mini-jail cell in court, leaving artists to try and sketch them while they’re behind the railing. Behringer illustrated suspected Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo while DeAngelo was in his mini-prison (above), carefully drawing each bar separating him from civilized society. “That was very time-consuming.”

9. THEY SOMETIMES PRACTICE BEFOREHAND.

An artist sketches using a pencil
iStock.com/cherrybeans

When artists book a trial, they know they might only have a millisecond to glimpse a defendant’s face before he or she is either ushered out of the courtroom or takes a seat out of view. To help get a better look, artists will sometimes do some drafts at home using existing photographs as reference before heading to trial. “Occasionally I’ll do that [practice] with someone famous because everyone knows what they look like,” Behringer says. “Even if they’re not a celebrity, looking for certain features in photos helps because you might not be able to see it in court.”

10. THEIR SUBJECTS RARELY COOPERATE.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams depicts Michael Cohen seated next to his attorney during a 2018 hearing
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Unlike normal portrait subjects, defendants and other court personalities don’t usually have a big incentive to cooperate with a sketch artist. They’ll express a variety of emotions, changing expressions so quickly that it can be difficult to nail one down. Covering former Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen (seen above) and his federal hearing for tax evasion in August 2018, Williams was taken aback by his elastic face. “If someone is just sitting there, it’s like, ‘OK, got it,’” she says. “But during his allocution, he was so overwrought, his range of emotions went from fear to depression to practically being in tears. When people are making a lot of expressions, it’s challenging to make it look like them.” She drew 17 Cohen heads before settling on one she liked.

Other times, defendants can be chillingly emotionless. Chronicling the 2016 case of “Grim Sleeper” Lonnie David Franklin Jr., who killed between 10 and 25 people, Edwards was struck by the fact that he seemed unmoved by the trial. “I kept staring at this guy waiting for him to have some reaction,” she says. “He didn’t even lift his head.” Sketching James “Whitey” Bulger in 2013, the notorious Boston mobster who had finally been brought to justice after years on the run, Bulger looked directly at her and shook his finger “no" before trying to cover his face.

11. THEY BOND WITH JUDGES OVER ART.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer Edwards depicts judge Elden Fox and Courtney Love during a hearing
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Most artists have good relationships with judges, who appreciate their work in chronicling important civil and criminal cases. Sometimes, a judge may even decide to talk shop. “I’ve had judges buy my drawings and take me into their chambers to show me what they’ve done themselves or show their collection of art,” Edwards says. “A lot of them have good taste and a good eye.”

12. DEFENDANTS CAN CHANGE THEIR APPEARANCE.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer depicts Jay Leno's testimony while Michael Jackson looks on during Jackson's child molestation trial in 2005
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

Some trials can mean day after day of sketching the same faces. Other times, defendants will experience some fairly radical physical transformations that keep sketch artists on their toes. “Barry Bonds, from the day he was indicted [in 2007, for perjury] to the day the trial was over, lost a significant amount of weight,” Behringer says. “There was another trial in Stockton where the defendant gained a significant amount of weight. People said it was the carbs in the jail food.”

The most dramatic alterations in appearance are usually attributed to the late singer Michael Jackson (above, seen with Jay Leno), who was frequently sketched during his participation in a 2005 trial to refute charges of child molestation. (A jury found him not guilty.) “Every day, he wore a completely different outfit, different armbands, and his hair would change from Monday to Friday. One time, it was longer on a Monday. It’s like, how did you do that?”

13. THEY TRY TO DRAW QUIETLY.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer edwards depicts Clint Eastwood sitting next to his attorney during Eastwood's 1996 palimony trial
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

When cameras are in a courtroom, everyone knows it. When Edwards is around, subjects might not even know they’re being rendered. The artist carries a small 9-inch by 12-inch pad with her along with a small number of tools. “Defendants never know I’m drawing them,” she says. “You might act differently if you’re aware someone is staring. I try to blend in.”

14. O.J. SIMPSON MAY HAVE KEPT THEM IN BUSINESS.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer Edwards depicts O.J. Simpson testifying during his 1995 trial for murder
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

The decision in 1995 to allow television cameras to depict the O.J. Simpson trial—Simpson was accused of killing ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman—seemed to signal a new and relaxed policy about media coverage in courtrooms. “I thought that was it, the swan song of sketching,” Edwards says. “Then it turned out to be a joke.” Judges, fearing they’d be criticized as much as Simpson’s presiding judge Lance Ito, shied away from that kind of scrutiny. “Judges realized they didn’t want to be on camera. So every time I think it’s over, it keeps going.”

15. THEY DO WEDDINGS.

Artist Elizabeth Williams depicts a newlywed couple
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

The nature of the court sketch business has changed over the years as some federal courts are becoming more lenient with the presence of cameras. (While cameras are typically not allowed in federal trial courts, there have been certain exceptions, experiments, and pilot projects to allow cameras; state rules vary.) Experienced artists still find work, but it’s a good idea to have some alternative methods of income. Williams books her services as a sketch artist for weddings on weekends, when court isn’t in session. “People are always getting married, but you can’t always count on ‘El Chapo’ getting arrested,” she says. “You have to do other things.” Williams approaches nuptials in much the same way as a trial. “I’ll meet with a client and go over the key moments.” Instead of closing arguments, it might be the first dance as a married couple.

The biggest difference? “It’s so nice to be around people who are so happy and just beginning their lives, as opposed to people going to, you know, prison.”

All sketches are copyright their respective artists and used with permission.

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