by: Adreana Young
Tony O. Champagne’s ballpoint pen glides across his sketch paper. His eyes dart up and down. He doesn’t have time to stare, but he needs to memorize the faces in front of him. He quickly draws the expressions of the lawyers, the judge, and the man sitting in chains and an orange jumpsuit—the defendant Robert Durst.
With no cameras or video allowed in the courtroom, Champagne’s sketches are the only window into the trial of the millionaire and real estate heir accused of committing multiple murders.
Becoming the Camera
Soon after Robert Durst’s arrest in New Orleans on March 14, Champagne received a call from international news agency Reuters; they wanted to know if he still drew courtroom sketches.
It had been a long time since he had, the Baton Rouge-based artist told them; he had been a courtroom artist for the extortion trial against former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards in 2000. Now, Champagne was being asked again to cover another high profile case.
“I had never heard of Robert Durst before when they called and asked me to do the illustrations. I wanted to say no, but something was telling me to do it,” he said.
Champagne now commissions his trial sketches to Reuters, Entertainment Tonight, CNN, ABC, E! News and the Insider. His signature signed at the bottom of each water-colored print: Tony O. Champagne.
Although, he works with many news organizations, Champagne owns the rights to his illustrations. But, for Champagne, it isn’t about the money or the notoriety of having his work seen nationally; it’s about “the pure joy and challenge of doing the work.”
Champagne compared working as a courtroom artist to playing a video game. “You want to win,” he said. “Success comes when people can recognize the people you’re drawing.”
He wasn’t sure how Reuters and the other news organizations got his number, but he thinks they might have been tipped off by a previous colleague from the New Orleans Times- Picayune. He worked at the newspaper from 1974 until 2012 as a staff illustrator and photographer. Champagne is currently an illustrator for E&P.
But Champagne was drawing long before he was an illustrator for newspapers and magazines. “Growing up, I was always doodling,” he said. “It’s a God-given gift.”
He credited his courtroom sketches’ accuracy to his love of photography and animation. His mother first introduced him to photography with an old Polaroid camera. He was so impressed by the detail the Polaroid image could capture, he began taking photos as a hobby, which later turned into something he did professionally. Champagne would also go to libraries to look at newspapers and photographs and try to mimic the picture in his drawings.
Now, rather than trying to mimic the photographs, he acts as the camera for news organizations across the country with his courtroom sketches.
“You become the camera,” he said. “You can’t get perfect results in that short of time, so you just get really close.”
The Artist’s Process
Sitting front and center inside the courtroom, Champagne quickly sketches between two and five pieces for every 30 minute or less trial session. The pieces are done first in black ink. There’s no time for erasing, Champagne said.
Still, he needs to be precise. With so little time to produce the sketches, Champagne focuses on dramatic scenes during the trial. If the prosecutor gets heated and points his finger at the defense, Champagne singles in on that scene, sketching swiftly before the image fades from his head.
Often, the lawyers and defendant are facing away from Champagne, that’s when he relies on his memory for accuracy.
“When you look at people long enough, you get an imprint of what they look like,” Champagne said.
He focuses on some of the defining features of each person before him—the wrinkles, the eyes and hand gestures—to tell the story.
Studying the face of a man accused of murder, Champagne said intimidation never crossed his mind. “It doesn’t faze me at all. I’m invisible. I’m in my zone,” he said. “In there, it’s like no one can see or hear me…I’m more concerned about getting the right color on the bowtie.”
Champagne said he practiced sketching about twice a week, doodling at his dining room table, but trying to pre-sketch the lawyers or defendant before the trial doesn’t work. Often, a defendant will come in looking completely different than they did the previous session.
“One day, the defendant had a full head of hair,” Champagne said. “And the next day, he came in and was bald. I immediately focused in on that. That’s newsworthy.”
After the trial session ends, Champagne leaves the courtroom and heads into the hallway. He begins to color in the black-lined sketches with watercolor and colored pencils, bringing life to the drawings.
Champagne then goes to a nearby library, takes a photograph of the sketches with his iPhone and uploads the pictures to his laptop, where he cleans up the images and fine tunes them in Photoshop.
After sending the fresh sketches to Reuters, Champagne waits two hours until giving them to other media outlets, as part of his original agreement with the news organization.
While the whole process can be difficult, it isn’t the pressure of sketching accurately in a short period of time that Champagne worries about. His biggest concern is creating better and better sketches.
“I want to be able to hang it on a wall,” he said. “So, not only is it meant to be informative, I want it to be pleasing to the eye.”