Inside the Mind of Manafort's Courtroom Artist, Dana Verkouteren
Tasked with capturing the scene inside Paul Manafort’s trials, courtroom sketch artist Dana Verkouteren details the inner workings of her increasingly rare profession.
An expensive suit. A silky tie. A fresh shave and perfectly coiffed hair.
That used to be Paul Manafort, the former campaign manager of President Donald Trump who is now one of two former Trump associates expected to be the subjects of new disclosures from the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller coming Friday.
Manafort, 69, was previously convicted in a Virginia federal court this September of eight criminal counts, mainly regarding his work for a Ukrainian political party that is pro-Russia. Though he was expected to face a second trial shortly thereafter, he reached a plea agreement with Mueller hours before his next trial was set to begin. That deal, however, was voided after Mueller alleged that Manafort had “breached” it by committing federal crimes and lying to both the FBI and the Special Counsel—a lapse in judgement that may land Manafort in more legal trouble.
The former conservative Washington bigwig has been jailed since June, when his bail was revoked for witness tampering. Manafort privately boasted that he'd been treated like a Very Important Prisoner, and his courtroom attire in infrequent appearances there had continued to evoke the memory of the man of power influence he once was.
There are no photographs of Manafort in court. In fact, there are no new photos of Manafort since his incarceration. The only look the public is able to get of one of the men embroiled in the Special Counsel's investigation is through drawings by Dana Verkouteren, a courtroom sketch artist tasked with portraying the scenes where cameras are not allowed, and who's added more white pencil over time to Manafort's salt-and-pepper hair, as the faces of onlookers appear to show ever more concern.
“I was a commercial illustrator doing spot illustrations when I got out of school at ArtCenter College of Design,” says Verkouteren of the beginning of her career as a freelance artist in the early 1980s. “Everyone doing that kind of work was doing their own thing and I just felt isolated and was trying to find a way to be around people. And some extra income.”
Instead of heading to her local coffee shop, Verkouteren went to court. She had seen something on television that gave her the idea and her father told her that anyone was allowed in. She packed up some materials — “I had no idea what I need to bring,” she admits, laughing — and went to the Montgomery County, Maryland courthouse and gave it a try.
“It was really hard. Just unbelievable,” she remembers of her first attempt. Not willing to give up so easily, she kept going back to try and get a better grasp of the artform. After a few days, someone told her there was a big murder case across the hall with several courtroom sketch artists inside and it might be a chance to learn something.
“There were a lot more of us back then,” she remembers fondly. “All the news stations wanted their own artist.” She met a woman who worked for Fox — “sort of the poorer of the stations” at the time and “always looking for people willing to work cheap” — who mentioned that when there are more than one big trail going on, the station will need more artists. So Vertouteren kept coming back to the courthouse, practicing her skill and building a portfolio.
Sure enough, one day Fox did call. They needed another artist at a drug trial in Prince George’s County — another suburban area in Maryland outside DC.
“I went in there with my heart racing and totally nervous beyond all beyond,” she admits of her first job. Each artist had their own style, and Verkouteren tried to emulate some of the people she had watched previously. “I drew the whole case on colored pencils and white paper. That’s what I thought everyone was using.” Though today we are used to high resolution scans of drawings, perfectly displayed on televisions capable of “ultra-high definition” 4k, in the 1980s, cameras were a little less precise.
As she watched the news waiting for her illustration to appear on the screen, her heart sank. “They were almost invisible. Transparent. Totally washed out drawings.” The white paper she used had washed out the drawing completely, and the colored pencils weren’t the right medium to use; they weren’t bold enough.
Though her first professional gig may have been a wash, Verkouteren continued to receive about one call a month asking her to go to court. “Little by little, a bunch of longtime court artists left, passed away, or retired,” she says. But while there was a fair amount of work for a few years, soon cable came along and changed the game. News agencies had less money, so they started to pool, meaning much less work for the remaining artists. If other media was allowed into court — television crews or photographers — the agencies tended to not want to spend even more money to pay for a sketch artist as well.
Now, Verkouteren is one of only three courtroom sketch artists currently working in the DC area. “There used to be a lot more of us,” she says. “I don’t know what will happen when we retire,” with not many young people seeming to follow her career path with the increasingly rare opportunities to find work.
“I have to subsidize by doing other stuff,” she says, “I could never make it just doing court art.” In addition to calls from news outlets, Verkouteren says many of her courtroom sketches are commissioned by people — generally attorneys — trying to promote themselves. “They want to put it on their website,” she says. “It’s so rare now for the news to cover anything with court art anymore,” so instead, they come straight to the source. She also will do work for independent people, like documentarians, who want a scene of the courtroom for a story they’re documenting but cannot film. And when the agencies she sells her work to — places like the AP — find out, they’ll ask her for some drawings as well.
Verkouteren used to be tasked with portraying all sorts of trials — rapes, murders, government scandals (thanks to her close proximity to the nation’s capital) — “but now it has to be one of international interest for them to cover it with a court artist,” she says. “Since Manafort is pretty famous and well known and connected to Donald Trump, they're more interested in covering someone like him.”
Two of her most memorable court experiences came early in the new millennia. “I was working for CNN back then,” she says, “and they wanted me to go to court everyday to cover the Microsoft trial.” In early 2001, the government sued Microsoft in United States vs. Microsoft Corp. in an antitrust suit, claiming the tech powerhouse held a monopoly and engaged anti-competitive practices. With typically only one witness called to the stand each day, Verkouteren had “plenty of time to do detailed drawings.” While there were major players called to the stand, “that wasn’t really an exciting case,” she admits. “I didn't even understand half of it.”
The most interesting case of her career, however, was also the most intense: the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen who pleaded guilty to conspiring to kill American citizen in the 9/11 attacks. “The footage they showed,” says Verkouteren, “the witnesses they called, and the stories you heard were really compelling,” all which helped influence her sketches.
“There are days when I just come home and all I can do is just lay on the ground in my yard and try to breathe,” Verkouteren admits of the emotional toil some of the cases bring. “You’re just a little bit out of body and when you come home,” it all sinks in.
Over the course of her career, Verkouteren has changed her approach both in terms of medium (she tries not to use pastels as much anymore because “they’re really messy”) and workflow. While she used to draw many scenes from the same trial, now “it’s almost as if they want you to animate the entire day” in just one or two shots, she says. “You have to hit the main storyline. The challenge is in finding and expressing that.
“If it’s opening arguments, you have to get at least two drawings,” she explains, one from each side (defense and prosecution). “If they’re calling really important witnesses, you have to do a lot of them because you really don’t know who is going to be the standout.” Sometimes, Verkouteren says, she will commit to one scene and “be far down that rabbit hole,” when something major happens at the end of the day and she’ll have to start from scratch.
“I’ll rough out the gesture real fast if I have five minutes,” she says of her process, “but to do a really good drawing with a lot of likenesses, I have to spend at least a couple hours working on it.” She starts with Prismacolor pencil, and then moves to regular old ballpoint pen to get some facial features and small details. Next, it’s back to Prismacolor for some color. But what brings her drawings to life — and helps them from getting washed out like her first foray into courtroom sketches — is her watercolors. “I’ll go into the bathroom during the break and I’ll use my watercolors by the sink.”
In trying to capture the right moment, Verkouteren says she tries “to watch the person’s tendencies. You want to look at their relation to the other people in court.” Her goal is to find a moment when her subject looks engaged in some way, “even if their engagement means they’ve totally shut down.”
She spends a lot of her time in court watching, observing, and waiting. She’s waiting for the right moment to draw, waiting for the next star witness, and waiting for the jury to come in.
For the Manafort case this fall, she spent over a week at the courthouse. “He was only there five days,” she thinks. “I was there for his arraignment, for opening arguments, and when Rick Gates was on the stand.” Then, she waited. “I think the jury took four days, or something,” she says. “You have to wait out the jury, because when they come in, you want that moment. That’s the key.”
Verkouteren won’t be able to watch Paul Manafort Friday as the news of the most recent Mueller filing trickles in, but she’ll be on hand the next time Manafort makes it to court, her big easel in hand, her pencils at the ready, waiting to capture the scene in a colorful illustration so the public can see behind the closed doors of the courthouse.