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Communication Arts last spoke with you in 1984. How has your day-to-day as a courtroom artist changed since then? As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the courts have been closed since March 15, 2020. I have not worked in a courtroom since then. Fortunately, I am currently working on a huge commission from the United States District Court for the Southern District of California, which is taking me through this pandemic. The project is drawing portraits of the seventeen federal court judges in a group composition on a 60 by 40-inch board, which is proving to be challenging. In addition, I have licensed 61 Charles Manson PDF images for an upcoming documentary. I also just completed licensing 86 PDF images from the Michael Jackson trial for another soon-to-be-released documentary. It always feels good when assignments come in other than courtroom proceedings.

What changes have you observed in the field of courtroom illustration since you first started? Since my first courtroom assignment in 1970 for Charles Manson’s trial, I have seen drastic changes in both television news and the development of technology. Back in my early days at CBS News, if I heard about something newsworthy, I would call the assignment desk. I’d say, “So-and-so is being arranged at 2:30,” and they would say, “Do it!” Today, television news stations are more cautious about whether to spend money to hire a courtroom artist or cover a trial. I have also seen technology go from film to digital to direct satellite transmission from the field. Occasionally, when there isn’t a camera crew at my location, I take iPhone shots of my work and send them to the television stations.

You use a variety of mediums, including pencil and watercolor. What are the limits and benefits of each medium? My work has always been strong in drawing. During my first trial, I had experimented with various techniques and mediums before arriving at my current style. I found out that I needed a quick, correctable and beautiful technique, so I came up with the idea of drawing with a Pentel Rolling Writer rollerball pen, a transparent vellum drawing pad, some colored markers, some colored pencils, and, later, I added a few brush pens. I usually draw directly on the pad.

Love your craft, aspire to get better and always be prepared for a new opportunity.”

What techniques do you use to quickly capture scenes? First of all, I visualize the situation and determine what is important. When I’m beginning a drawing, I always try to develop an interesting composition, and I utilize strong negative and positive shapes, which are important in my work.

How did you discover your passion for courtroom illustration? Even as a kid, I loved news and documentaries. Then, the Tate–LaBianca murders took place in Los Angeles, California, where I was located. And the time, courtroom art was a new medium. As a date for the trial came up, I wanted to cover that trial as an artist. So I phoned one of my former classmates from the ArtCenter College of Design, who happened to be the art director at the local CBS News station. He put me together with the right news people. They liked my portfolio, and I was hired. I have been a freelancer ever since. Luckily, I was at the right place at the right time.

What’s the strangest scene you’ve captured in your career? There have been many interesting, unusual and sometimes bizarre situations. But I think the most unusual was covering an execution by lethal injection at San Quentin prison’s gas chamber. The actual execution took place a minute after midnight, but I didn’t finish the artwork until around three in the morning.

What advice do you have for illustrators who are just starting out? Upon graduation from ArtCenter College of Design, which was called Art Center back then, I had a successful career as an illustrator for nine years prior to entering the courtroom artist field. Throughout my courtroom artist career, I was still working as an illustrator. My point to illustrators just starting out is to love your craft, aspire to get better and always be prepared for a new opportunity.

For more than four decades, Bill Robles has mastered the art of on-the-spot illustration. The 1970 Charles Manson trial launched his career as a television news courtroom artist, and he has covered high profile trials including those of Patricia Hearst, O.J. Simpson and the Led Zeppelin copyright dispute. Outside of the courtroom, Robles has received numerous awards, including the Gold Medal Award from the Art Directors Club of Los Angeles and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles. He currently lectures about his courtroom artwork at libraries, colleges and art groups. A native of Los Angeles, Robles now resides in Brentwood, California.

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