Priscilla Coleman – the courtroom artist
Jane McGuire

Priscilla Coleman – the courtroom artist

From murderers to celebrities, we find out what the life of a courtroom artist is like

First published date October 21 2014 Amended date March 15 2016

There aren’t many interviews that leave me speechless. Stumbling across Priscilla Coleman and her courtroom sketches, I found myself staring at pictures of some of the world’s most wanted; from Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr to Rose West. The courtroom was the last place I expected to find a creative, with barristers, defendants and judges blurring the picture, but as soon we started speaking I knew I had inadvertently struck gold. Talking in a softly spoken American accent, she quickly became one of my most intriguing and inspiring interviewees. Getting into courtroom drawing by mistake, Priscilla originally worked in American courts before moving to the UK. As she runs through her career it dawns on me that I’ve picked one of the best; Priscilla has sat and sketched through some of the most high profile court cases in the past two decades. With a humbling honesty she describes a profession that is changing with technology, as cameras enter the court and photographers camp outside to get a shot of the condemned...


Do you feel like the industry is changing a lot with new technology?

I went to art college and studied fine art and graphics – my mother was a fashion illustrator and her advice was the illustration was not a growing thing but that computer graphics and graphics were. It was good advice, as only doing court drawing as a career is very limited now. I think now that technology has changed, it means my whole job has too; if cameras get a shot of somebody they need getting into a police van or even just a fleeting glimpse, that’s the dominant thing and they don’t want drawings.


What is the best part of your job?

Oh the best part is getting to see all these things in person, to see all these people and try and memorise their faces, especially the famous ones. Who would have thought I would get to see Heather Mills and Paul McCartney going through the separate doors when they were having their big divorce. The great thing is just to see the barristers and judges, defendants and juries in action; the stories you read about in the news.


What are the hardest parts of your job?

One of the hardest parts of doing what I do is controlling your mind and not getting distracted. There can often be fights in court; I remember the guy who was kicked by Eric Cantona – he lost his temper and jumped over the dock. It makes you shake afterwards, you think, I’ve got to calm down and draw what I’ve just seen. It’s also sometimes really hard to see the person I need to see to memorise their face, they can be surrounded by prison officers or they’ll lean forward. You’ve got to remember if you get a glimpse of that person that’s it, you just click it in your mind like a camera flash and you’ve got to know your brain will remember it. Getting a seat in court is probably one of the hardest things now too, I did the Diana inquest and that was mad. Luckily I was given a pass and a seat to actually be in there, so I could see Mohammed Al-Fayed when he was in the witness box giving evidence and things like that. All reporters are in the same boat as well – it can be a nightmare!


For me, art is such a subjective thing that if I were to draw someone, I think my opinion and feeling about them would come out in that drawing. How hard is it to avoid letting your own opinion colour the drawings?

I just have to keep this in mind, but also the barristers keep you in check too. Often the judge will ask to be careful that a person’s face is not seen in case it appears on television, as special witnesses may recognise the face from that rather than their memory of the event. It can often really jeopardise the trial. In the Huntley and Carr case, Ian Huntley was constantly looking over at Maxine Carr trying to catch her eye, the judge made a ruling we weren’t allowed to show this in a drawing because the jurors might not have seen this or their expressions. Not all trials are that way, if someone is angry or cries in front of the jury you know it’s ok to show, if there’s a little worry you can’t. It would be embarrassing if the case was thrown out because of something I did, it would be horrible.


How long on average does each sketch take?

It depends on all the things surrounding it, like seeing the person and the news deadline. One good thing is now I don’t have to run and find a camera man, but shoot my own sketch on my phone and email it down the line – it’s saved a lot of time. In terms of working on the drawing, I always have to find a place to work, even if that’s the floor. Sometimes I get just 15 minutes which is tight, but just narrows down who I can put in. I remember with the James Bulger trial I had the added problem of having to run outside and do the sketch in the rain, the photographer was struggling to find somewhere out of the elements to shoot the picture. On the other hand, in some cases I can have hours to work on a picture and put loads of different people in it, which is a lot of fun in a different way – it’s a challenge of how many faces I can remember. Like with Jeffery Archer’s court case, if we have to wait for several days for the jury to come back, I have time to work on a huge sketch and then leave a space for his reaction.


What led you to decide to publish some of your works into a book?

Paul Cheston, the crime correspondent for the Evening Standard. I went to a private show at one of the papers and he said, ‘We’ve done all these cases together, why don’t I do the writing and you supply the drawings and we’ll put together a book?’ It was really nice, he knew all the cases and it was really great combining our efforts – he’s in a lot of my sketches anyway!


You’ve named so many cases in this interview, which would you say has been the most interesting for you personally?

Oh gosh, probably Rose West, I really remember that one because of all the logistics and the deadlines. Being there every day, it was one of those occasions where every time someone came into court, it was headline news; the things they would say, or someone that had seen her or knew him. Also the cases with celebrities that are not horrific trials of murder; I’ve seen Naomi Campbell in court a few times and she’s beautiful to see in person, really gorgeous. Elton John, George Harrison – the celebrity ones are probably the most interesting, but then there are ones where extraordinary things happen like with Rose West or James Bulger – these are stranger than fiction.


How do you leave your work in the courtroom and turn off?

I try and get on with things like all reporters do, but then again sometimes I’ll wake up from a nightmare and think, why did I dream that? I often think it was much better in a dream than in reality in some ways. It makes you realise you can’t tell what a person is going to be like from looking at them; if someone has a horrible expression you think, I’ll keep my eyes averted, but I guess you have to count yourself lucky you don’t run into these subtle types, who catch people out by just seeming plausible. Human nature is a scary thing, you never can tell.


What advice would you give to someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?

Train as a fine artist, but also do graphics and feel comfortable with both things, because you’ll need to know both – they are merging more. As an artist you need to be ready for everything; nowadays reporters are allowed to tweet in the courtroom. Technology is changing for reporters, camera men, artists and graphics – it’s all really coming together now.


And with that Priscilla was gone. If, like me, you are lost for words and fancy trying courtroom drawing for yourself, why not start by perfecting your drawing skills with a course?