Sketching History: Elizabeth Williams on Illustrating the Trump Criminal Trial

Courtroom sketch artist Elizabeth Williams in front of the Criminal Courthouse at 100 Centre Street. She holds her drawing of Donald Trump during the summation speech by his lawyer Todd Blanche. "I got this great view of Trump turning to Blanche and I thought, 'My God, this is really representational of Trump's dynamic with the defense.' Because this was a defense that was run by Trump from what I could see." Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jun. 04, 2024

Elizabeth Williams, a long-time Financial District resident, is a veteran courtroom sketch artist who has covered some of the most famous trials of the past 40 years. Working for the Associated Press, she was one of three courtroom illustrators, including Jane Rosenberg and Christine Cornell, covering the Donald Trump criminal trial. With cameras banned from the courtroom, she and the two other artists were the publics eyes on those historic proceedings. Here is her account of what that was like, as told to Trib editor Carl Glassman.

For the Trump trial, I’d get up at 5 a.m. and arrive at the courthouse between 6:15 and 6:30, leave off my food and water outside 100 Centre Street where the press lines up, then go over to the Federal courthouse on Pearl Street where I keep my art supplies.

My paper, drawing board and other supplies weigh about 25 pounds. So when I’d go into the courtroom with that and my other stuff, I looked like a pack mule. I have a bag of colored pencils, a bag of brush pens that have a felt-tip brush on one side and a pen on the other. I have a bag of colored pencils that I have to keep sharp and then I have my oil pastels.

I also bring a cushion, which helps your circulation. It’s very taxing to sit for so long and also to have to be so focused. I have to always be on. 

The two other sketch artists and I were in the third row, behind two rows of prosecution. Normally we’re in the first row, so this was a hard job because we really struggled to see a lot. I don’t think any of us did our greatest work, between struggling to see and the deadlines. And then you’re also far away and then you've got the court officers on the side of Trump, blocking the view. So some days you just couldn’t see him at all, and some days you could only draw a sliver of him.

There were eight court officers in the courtroom room, many of whom were going back and forth watching us the entire time to make sure we werent drawing the jury. None of us would ever do that. Sometimes youd see that they were standing right over you.

There was more pressure at this trial because AP, who I was working for, was hungry for images all the time. For the Bankman-Fried trial we could wait until lunchtime to send a picture, not so with Trump. Before noon I’d already completed one finished piece and then after lunch one or two others, and by 3 o’clock I sent another one. And depending on what happened at the trial, maybe there was another one. We would shoot our stuff in the bathroom because it was the only place where we were allowed to use the phone. We would put the sketch boards on the radiator by the window and photograph them there. Not glamorous, especially if you saw those bathrooms!

At night, none of us are scouring the news to see what people are writing and what’s on TV. You go home and you pass out and you get up the next morning and you come back. You’re just trying to get through a day and get through another day and do your job. 

Trump is pretty easy to draw. Not just because of his hair, but because of everything. He strikes these poses, like when he gets really pissed off, his lips kind of stick out. His brow furrows a certain way. He’s always got this very design-shaped hair. I’ll have the “Trump yellow-hair color” in my oil pastel box from now on because I used that yellow more than I’ve ever used it in any other courtroom. 

I’ve never noticed Trump’s face being orange. Maybe he puts on more makeup for his events. But I did notice that when the verdict came down his ears got more red and the skin tone was a little bit more intense. He’s fatter in person but he covers it up really well. In one of my pictures his tie was flowing down past his abdomen and I thought, I gotta get that.

Stormy Daniels is the easiest thing for me to draw. Hands down. I was originally a fashion artist and she has a fashion face of an older fashion person. The bone structure, a kind of square jaw, high cheekbones, the makeup, the whole thing, and she's had face work. I love drawing this kind of a face. I mean, I could draw Stormy Daniels all day long. If all witnesses and all the defendants looked like that, I’d be fine. 

On the day of the verdict I never thought it was going to come in that fast. The judge said come in at 4:15 because I’m going to call the jury out. We thought he was going to release the jury for the day at 4:30, so Jane [Rosenberg] and I were packing up our materials. We thought, okay, we’re going to stay here and wait for the jury and then we’re going to leave for the day. But the judge comes out two minutes later, it was 4:20, and says I’ve got a note from the jury. There’s a verdict. Thank God they took some time to fill out the form for the 34 counts. The judge ended up giving them another half hour, and we were able to unpack all our supplies in time. 

I thought, here we go again. It was like what happened at the Sam Bankman-Fried verdict. The worst thing for sketch artists is a late-day verdict because you miss all the news deadlines. Your artwork’s hardly going to get used, and you have incredible stress.

My first picture from the verdict includes the jury foreman. You can’t see his face, of course. I’m focusing on Trump. For the first couple of guilties he was looking directly at the jury. That’s what I’m drawing, the look on his face. Maybe at the third guilty he turns his face and looks straight forward but I got this really quick moment and you see how incredibly pissed off he looks. I know he often looks grumpy but this is more like he was seething. It was really important but the picture hardly got used anywhere because it was so late.

The next sketch, after the verdict, shows Trump shaking hands with his son Eric. I  was drawing so fast I didn’t even look at the paper. Trump looked so devastated. And it just kind of came out in the line when I drew it. The devastation of what just occurred. And his human contact with his son. That was just such a moment. He’s not going to put his head in his hands or hug someone. I mean, that’s just not who he is. 

I started out in LA and I sat alongside some of the most revered courtroom artists of all time. Howard Brodie for one, Bill Robles for another. Brodie was a World War II and Vietnam War sketch artist who did the courtroom art for the Jack Ruby trial among many others. He said, The best courtroom illustrations are those that accurately depict the courtroom scene, and I followed that tenet. The AP has guidelines and you have to sign this document that says you’re going to follow that. You draw the scene, you don’t make some pretty pastel pictures. It’s about depicting the factual scene and that’s not always beautiful. It just isn’t. And you don’t always get a likeness. But you get a sense of being there. 

Sometimes I get upset because I don’t have time to make the pictures as good as I want. And sometimes I’ll work on them more, just for myself. Others I’ve thrown out. I’m not going to keep a piece of artwork that is substandard. It’s like when you throw a dart at the dartboard—you're not going to hit the bullseye every time.

I knew I was doing something that was important at the trial yet I also knew that some days I was going to do good drawings and some days I was going to do not-so-good drawings. But at least my drawings were going to have the ring of truth. Some artists did a composite sketch, a sort of symbolic scene with the lawyer, Trump and the witness all in one picture. That’s just simply not what it looks like. I don’t feel like our job as courtroom artists is to be creative reconstructors of a courtroom scene. I really felt it was important for the American public to see the truth. That’s what they want to see. 

Elizabeth Williams is a former member of Community Board 1 and for 12 years served as either vice president or president of the 1st Precinct Community Council. Her lobbying efforts on behalf of the James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act helped lead to its passage. She is the co-author of “The Illustrated Courtroom: 50+ Years of Court Art.”