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Need for court artists fades as more cameras start to move in

CHICAGO -- One marker in hand and one in his mouth, Lou Chukman glances up and down from a sketchpad to a reputed Chicago mobster across the courtroom -- drawing feverishly to capture the drama of the judge's verdict before the moment passes.

Sketch artists have been the public's eyes at high-profile trials for decades -- a remnant of an age when drawings in broadsheet papers, school books or travel chronicles were how people glimpsed the world beyond their own.

Today, their ranks are thinning swiftly as states move to lift longstanding bans on cameras in courtrooms. As of a year ago, 14 states still had them -- but at least three, including Illinois this month, have taken steps since then to end the prohibitions.

"When people say to me, 'Wow, you are a courtroom artist' -- I always say, 'One day, you can tell your grandchildren you met a Stegosaurus," Chukman, 56, explained outside court. "We're an anachronism now, like blacksmiths."

Cutbacks in news budgets and shifts in aesthetic sensibilities toward digitized graphics have all contributed to the form's decline, said Maryland-based sketch artist Art Lien.

While the erosion of the job may not be much noticed by people reading and watching the news, Lien says something significant is being lost. Video or photos can't do what sketch artists can, he said, such as compressing hours of court action onto a single drawing that crystallizes the events.

The best courtroom drawings hang in museums or sell to collectors for thousands of dollars.

"I think people should lament the passing of this art form," Lien said.

But while courtroom drawing has a long history -- artists did illustrations of the Salem witch trials in 1692 -- the artistry can sometimes be sketchy. A bald lawyer ends up with a full head of hair. A defendant has two left hands. A portly judge is drawn rail-thin.

Subjects often complain as they see the drawings during court recesses, said Chicago artist Carol Renaud.

"They'll say, 'Hey! My nose is too big.' And sometimes they're right," she conceded. "We do the drawings so fast."