14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists

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iStock

Hollywood food stylists are little short of magicians—only instead of pulling rabbits out of hats, they’re turning piles of mashed potatoes into ice cream sundaes. Indeed, making food (or food-like products) appear photogenic and appetizing onscreen is a job for a true illusionist. Mental Floss spoke to a few food stylists working in TV, film, and commercials—from Game of Thrones to Taco Bell—to bring you the tricks of their magical trade.

1. MOST OF THE FOOD BEING FILMED IS REAL.

While food stylists are well-versed in the old-school swap tricks—using a pint of white glue to impersonate a glass of milk, for example—those are being phased out. Now, directors want actors to interact with their food, and high-definition camera lenses have made the fake stuff much more obvious. Plastic food props only appear in the background of scenes today, where they're less visible and susceptible to scrutiny.

“I only deal with real food,” says Chris Oliver, who has styled food for movies including Gone Girl (2014) and TV shows such as Seinfeld and Big Little Lies. “You also have to think about how a character would cook something or put a plate together. Realistic food is not all beautiful and perfect. I make ugly food and burnt food, too.”

There’s a trend in commercial food styling to present dishes that are less-than-perfect, too. Shellie Anderson, who styles food ads for clients including Burger King and Ragù, says it’s the consumers who are demanding food look more realistic and therefore more approachable.

“People are tired of seeing something in a TV commercial and then ordering it in a restaurant and it doesn't look the same,” she says. “You don’t want it to look staged anymore. You want a burger to look like the cheese naturally dripped off and landed on the plate.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF FOOD ...

Bowl of strawberry ice cream
iStock

If a food stylist needs one sprig of parsley for a shoot, they’ll often order 10 bunches. They never know what the condition of the parsley is going to be when it arrives from the produce vendor, or if the shoot is going to require more than they originally planned for. Carving a turkey in a scene? That may require two dozen birds if an actor keeps flubbing his line.

“It really depends on how much of a story point the food is and how important the scene is for the director,” Oliver says.

Food stylists usually have relationships with produce vendors, who can look for products with the specific size, shape, and color that stylists need. No bruises or dents, and no frozen lettuce! But stylists can hide those things if they have to.

Ice cream is infamously hard to keep intact because it melts so quickly. Food stylists have been known to replace the scoops with dollops of meringue, which don’t melt, or butter rolled in sugar. Oliver makes her sundaes the day before and sticks them in the freezer, spoons and straws and all. If they freeze rock hard overnight, they can last a few hours on set the next day before being replaced with another sundae lined up in the deep-freeze. Anderson sprays her ice cream with cold spray, an aerosol can of super-chilled gas used for cooling electronics.

3. ... BUT THE FOOD RARELY GOES TO WASTE.

On film and TV shoots, there are rarely leftovers. In fact, good food stylists often compete with the caterers: Actors usually have to eat the food during their scenes, and the crew finishes off the scraps. While shooting a Chinese New Year scene for the show Fresh Off the Boat recently, actress Lucille Soong told Oliver, who was styling that episode, that she was going to skip lunch because she wanted to enjoy eating her food on camera. “That was pretty freaking flattering!” Oliver says.

Because Oliver works on multiple TV shows in a single day, if an item doesn’t get used on set and never comes out of her cooler, she can just take it back to her shop and recycle it for use on another show. If something can’t be used again, she’ll take it home and make salsa or jam. “When it gets really old, I'll just stick it in vodka,” she says.

Commercial shoots tend to have more unused food. Anderson says anything that’s still edible will be given to a food pantry. “I once donated an entire swordfish when we did a commercial for a fish restaurant,” she says. “We never even used it. So I kept it on ice and took it to a men's homeless shelter. They were thrilled to have it.”

4. THEY VALUE FOOD SAFETY.

Another reason food stylists swap out on-camera food so much is because of safety concerns—hot and cold foods need to be kept at certain temperatures that may not be practical on-set. Sushi-grade tuna may be replaced with watermelon, for example, because the fish spoils so easily.

Oliver requires all of her employees to have a food handler’s license. She also only works out of commercial kitchens (including the one on her fully-equipped food styling truck). But not every food styling team does; some prepare food in their homes. “The reason that I get so much work is that everybody knows I'm a chef and I have a real kitchen,” Oliver says. “People trust my food. I’ve done a bunch of movies with Reese [Witherspoon] because she knows that if I’m on set, the food is safe to eat.”

5. WOMEN DOMINATE THE FIELD.

woman styling food
iStock

While there are a few well-known male food stylists, for the most part the key food stylists in the U.S. are women. (Both of Anderson’s daughters are food stylists, too.) The reason for this dates back decades.

Before food styling became its own career in the 1990s, it was up to network employees with home economics degrees (almost always women) to cook on-camera food. Then props departments became responsible. “But props guys can’t even make spaghetti,” Oliver says, laughing. So according to her, these guys would go home and ask their girlfriends or wives to make whatever food was required for the next day’s scene. “Eventually they would just hire their girlfriends or wives to do it; keep the money in the family,” she says. “I know five food stylists who at one time were in relationships with prop masters.”

Also in the 1990s, networks began making more multi-camera TV shows. A lot more food began appearing on screen, and actors openly discussed their dietary restrictions. They were vegan, sugar-free, and low-carb all of a sudden. Oliver trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked in restaurants and catering jobs before stumbling into this career. “Because I was a chef, and I understood how food works, I knew how to feed people and make food last on set,” she says. “And I could charge anything I wanted to.”

To get a job as a food stylist today, it helps to know someone already in the industry and have a culinary background. Everyone starts as an intern, and then may be able to work their way up to being an assistant and then a stylist. “Not everybody can be a food stylist,” Anderson says. “You have to be able to cook, but you still have to be creative. And you have to be able to work fast and under pressure.”

6. THEY LIVE OUTSIDE OF LOS ANGELES NOW.

Now that movies and TV shows are frequently filmed all over the world, instead of just on sets in Los Angeles, food stylists can be based anywhere. There is a concentration of stylists who live in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, because that's where many shows are now filmed. Labor laws also often require production crews to hire locally, so residing outside of L.A. can be a real advantage.

Some commercial food stylists, like Anderson, are flown in for shoots. “Food stylists can make or break a commercial,” she says. “And if you have trouble and you don't know what you're doing, it can be a real problem for production.” This is especially true on out-of-the-country shoots, when stylists don't have the resources that they’re used to. So clients who know her and her skill level, such as Taco Bell, will fly her to wherever they're filming.

7. THEY TALK LIKE CHEFS AND FILMMAKERS.

hand styling pancakes
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Food stylists use a mix of back-of-the-house kitchen lingo and film jargon. Some examples: The “hero” is the food that is written into the script, is being shot, and must appear in front of the actor. “Bite and smile” is when an actor takes a bite of food and pretends to like it. “All day” is the total number of items needed; if they needed five turkeys on a set, they would say “five all day.”

8. NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES.

Food stylists usually specialize in different media: film, TV, commercials, or print editorial. Stylists often prefer one over the other. Print editorial is shot in a controlled studio and tends to have more leeway for creativity. Commercials are tied to a brand’s specifications. Film and TV shoots on location are in unpredictable settings and can be physically demanding. But everyone tends to work long, 12- to 14-hour days. For commercials, it can often take three days to shoot one 30-second spot.

When working on a movie or TV show, the actors’ demands usually take precedence over the food needs. After working on one film, Anderson had had enough and dedicated herself to commercial work. “When I do commercials, the food is the star,” she says. “So [the directors] want to make sure I have everything I need. On a movie, they could care less about you.”

9. FOOD STYLISTS DON’T JUST MAKE FOOD.

Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal
NBC

Sometimes food stylists are expected to create sci-fi props—what would a person eat in the year 3000?—or fantasy items that they have no experience with. While working on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Oliver made gooey, edible slime from her imagination. “I also had to roll with the [actors’] different dietary needs,” she says. “I had to be able to make vegan slime, sugar-free slime, gluten-free slime, gelatin-free slime … Slime, any way you want it.”

Oliver also has to make items that you don’t really want to put in your mouth. While filming the TV show Big Little Lies, she made green-colored vomit for actress Reese Witherspoon of cucumbers and parsley. She says it was tasty, like green gazpacho. For a war film, she had to make 400 pounds of “dirt” for a group of prisoners of war to eat. She got Pakistani soil shipped to California so she could match it exactly. (Her recipe: ground-up Oreos and graham crackers, mixed with brown sugar and white sugar.)

Janice Poon, the food stylist behind the cannibal-centric TV show Hannibal, had a more challenging obstacle: how to make dishes that resembled human flesh. She refused to do research on cannibalism websites, she told HopesAndFears.com, but she studied a lot of anatomy books. “I’m just like Dr. Frankenstein,” Poon said. “I’m always stitching things, exchanging, putting one kind of meat on a different bone, patching stuff together. ... The key is to let the viewer’s imagination do more of your work.” She transformed veal shanks into human legs, and used prosciutto slices to mimic slivers of a human arm.

10. THEY PACK SOME SERIOUS GEAR.

When shooting, stylists need to be prepared for anything. They carry tools including tweezers, scissors, paint brushes, knives, offset spatulas, wet wipes, syringes, rulers, Q-tips, and spritz bottles.

“Think about your kitchen: all of your mixing bowls and utensils … I have that times 10 in my kit,” Anderson says. She also has a torch on hand for quick-cooking burgers and cold spray for extending the life of ice cream. Other stylists may have glycerin for adding shine or Kitchen Bouquet sauce for adding color. Poon often uses a white ceramic knife so she can see what she's doing on dark sets and work more quietly, so as not to disturb the acting process.

Food stylists sometimes work in erratic environments. Oliver brings her own 17-foot, cab-over truck to shoots. “It has a lift gate and everything's on wheels, so I can take everything out and have a kitchen in the middle of the desert, if I want,” she says. Inside, she has a full commercial kitchen: a six-burner stove, refrigerator, microwave, grill, freezer, prep tables, storage, TV, and a generator.

11. THEY’RE SKILLED AT IMPROV.

When production starts, the prop team sends memos to actors or their reps asking about food allergies and dietary restrictions. As trained chefs, most food stylists are happy to accommodate such limitations, cooking convincing swap-outs. “I find out what they will eat and make it happen,” Oliver says.

For example, Poon once made a convincing vegan “raw meat” on Hannibal using only grains. “I made lamb tongues out of bulgur and water,” Poon told HopesAndFears.com. “It’s like making a Lebanese kibbeh. You mix cracked wheat with water and it makes a kind of mush that holds together. The texture is a little 'nubbly,' so I added a pink food coloring, made little tongues out of kibbeh dough, steamed them up, and they were my little lambs’ tongues.”

Sometimes a director changes his or her mind at the last minute, and what was supposed to be a spaghetti dinner, for example, is now a breakfast spread. So the food stylist will squish down the meatballs and turn them into sausage patties. In an interview with NPR, food stylist Melissa McSorley recalled a time when a movie director suddenly decided to cut open a birthday cake she had made. The problem: It wasn’t real.

“So we had to cut the cake that was made out of Styrofoam, and I had to use a saw in order to do it because none of my knives could get through it,” McSorley said. “And then we had to layer in cake so it did look like it was real and then we had to send people scurrying to many markets to find white layer cake so it looked like people in the background could be actually be eating the cake.”

12. THERE’S ALWAYS THE SPIT BUCKET OPTION.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, David Bradley in Game of Thrones
HBO

Professional actors will often pick at the food in front of them, but not eat it because they know their scenes are going to require a lot of takes; they could be eating birthday cake for eight hours straight. Others dive right in. For a scene in The Guilt Trip (2012), actress Barbra Streisand had to pretend she was in a steak-eating contest. Oliver says they went through more than 300 pounds of meat for that scene’s three-day shoot and Streisand was totally game.

“But there’s a part towards the end where she has to eat really quickly and do a line without, you know, choking and dying,” Oliver says. “So I switched out the steak with seared watermelon. She took one bite and it sort of dissolved in her mouth, so she could do her line. If you watch it, and you really listen, you can hear the crunch of the watermelon.”

Sometimes, though, the spit bucket is the only option. In season one of Game of Thrones, the character Daenerys Targaryen had to eat a whole horse heart. But the actress who plays her, Emilia Clarke, actually had to eat 28. They were made of solidified jam, which tasted like “bleach and raw pasta,” she told The Mirror. “It was very helpful to be given something so truly disgusting to eat, so there wasn’t much acting required. Fortunately, they gave me a spit bucket because I was vomiting in it quite often.”

13. SOMETIMES THEY’RE SURPRISED BY THE FINAL PRODUCT.

Food stylists who work on multiple projects at a time, like Oliver, can’t always stick around to see how their food will be used. They may later find out that a gorgeous spread was relegated to the background, or worse. For a scene in Seinfeld, Oliver was once asked to prepare a perfect, glistening turkey. “Later I was home watching the episode and they had put the turkey on Kramer!” she says. “I was literally crying I was laughing so hard. Never in a million years did I think my turkey was going to end up with a guy’s head.”

14. THEY THROW EPIC DINNER PARTIES.

Food stylist preparing vegetables
iStock

You’d think that being around food all day would make food stylists tired of making things look nice. But most food stylists love to cook, and on the days they aren’t working, they love to throw parties. “People always expect to have beautiful food,” Anderson says. “And I don't disappoint.”

10 Secrets of User Experience Designers

iStock/RossHelen
iStock/RossHelen

While you may be able to recognize and appreciate the work of graphic designers, fashion designers, and architects in your everyday life, you may not think too often about experience designers. But user experience (UX) designers have a huge impact on the products most of us use every day, especially digital products like smartphone apps and websites. A UX designer is in charge of how you interact with a product and the overall experience: What features does it offer? When you click a button on an app or website, where does it take you? Can you find that button? How many clicks should it take to put in your credit card information or sign up for a new account? How easy is it to figure out how to share a link or invite a friend? It’s a UX designer's job to figure that stuff out.

Mental Floss interviewed four people who work as UX designers to find out more about their job. Jonny Mack, a Seattle-based freelance designer, previously worked at Google designing products like Chrome OS and has since worked on projects such as Coinbase Wallet, a cryptocurrency app. Rob Hamblen is a design director at the Berlin design agency AJ&Smart and has worked with clients like Adidas, Twitter, and Mercedes-Benz. Talin Wadsworth is the senior UX design lead for Adobe XD—the user experience design software that UX designers use to create prototypes—and Nina Boesch is a senior interaction designer at Local Projects, a New York-based studio that designs (among other things) museum experiences for institutions like the American Museum of Natural History.

Here are 10 secrets you might not know about the job, from the user features UX designers hate to the reason they hope you never notice their work.

1. THE DEFINITION OF A UX DESIGNER VARIES A LOT …

Not everyone who works as a UX designer has a similar job description. Some handle a wide breadth of tasks, from coming up with product features to prototyping to designing user testing to writing code. Others might be more specialized, overseeing other designers, researchers, and engineers as they work on individual aspects of the design process. Some are also involved in user interface design—known as UI—creating the visual look and feel of a product. “The range of skills across UX designers is pretty varied,” Mack explains. “Some people call themselves UX designers and they’re extremely technical. They’re actually doing a lot of engineering and front-end development. There are other people who call themselves UX designers who don’t write code and don’t even design much, who are doing a lot of research and usability stuff.”

"At a startup, I would define a UX designer as a generalist,” Mack says. “They would be working with a product manager and an engineer to define what the product even is.” They will help figure out what features a product will have and what features it won’t have, and might create a prototype. They’ll do interviews with potential users, asking them to test the prototype to determine whether people can actually use it as the designers envisioned. They might even be writing the code and designing the interface of the site or app.

“In a large company like, for example, Google, you had specialists for each of the things I mentioned,” he explains. There would be a dedicated usability researcher who would conduct those interviews and user tests as well as a team of prototypers and visual designers who would actually make the product, among other roles. In that kind of environment, the UX designer acts as more of a manager, helping determine what the product should be and guiding the project through the creation process.

2. THERE ARE A LOT OF MEETINGS.

Designers don’t spend all day at their desks sketching out ideas. It’s an intensely collaborative job—sometimes to a fault. “When I worked at Google,” Mack says, “I spent very little of my time actually designing—probably four to six hours a week at most, and that time happened either early in the morning, late in the evening, or on weekends, because all day was filled with meetings.”

Wadsworth, too, spends a lot of time meeting with other people rather than working on his own. His team typically has daily check-ins or critique sessions together. “The perception of the lone designer is not true,” he says. He tries to carve out an hour here or an hour there to work through ideas on his own, but says the rest of his time is spent collaborating and talking about ideas in meetings or on Slack or during formal research sessions. For him, that’s not a bad thing. “Some of my favorite moments are when someone’s passing by and I just grab them and get them to give me their take on something—that’s where a lot of the more ‘aha’ moments come from.”

3. IF THEY DO THEIR JOB WELL, YOU NEVER THINK ABOUT THEM.

The UX designer’s role is almost entirely behind the scenes. While you may admire how pretty an interface looks, you probably don’t think too much about the process that helps you get from Point A to Point B in an app. And that's a good thing.

As Hamblen puts it, “If you have done your job properly, you can design an interface where the user has no friction whatsoever. If the UX designer has done their job as well, [users] will be able to achieve their goal without thinking about it.” That goal might be buying something on a website, checking your account balance on your bank app, finding that “share” button, or otherwise understanding how to navigate the product you’re trying to use.

“In a way, we are working on deliverables, no one, other than our team or the client, will ever see,” Boesch says. “We are putting diagrams and storyboards in front of clients, we are providing our developers with wireframes and sitemaps,” but the end user isn’t going to see that work. Unless, of course, they do their job poorly, and their product or experience is hard to use—at which point a user might start to wonder what's going on behind the scenes, and why the product isn't easier to navigate.

4. THEY HATE TUTORIALS.

Mack hates to see multi-step user tutorials pop up the minute you open a consumer app, calling it “aggressive handholding.” Ideally, users should be able to figure out how to navigate and explore the features baked into an app or website without any special instruction, just by intuition and context. “I get the impetus to teach people, ‘Hey, here’s what this is,’ but you can teach people through use,” he says. “If you’re having to train people, it’s probably a failure of design.”

For instance, if you’re spending a ton of time trying to figure out how to buy a train ticket from a machine in the station, it’s the designer’s fault, not yours. “Most public kiosks, such as ticket machines at subway and train stations, hurt my eyes and my faith in the respective authorities,” Boesch explains. “If it takes me more than a minute to understand the interface and get my ticket then the UX/UI design failed. Most ATMs are pretty awful, too. In a perfect world, it wouldn't take more than 20 seconds to get money out of an ATM.”

One app that Mack says does this especially well is Todoist, the to-do list and task manager app. “It’s so simple at first glance, but it’s like an iceberg of complexity.” You might open it thinking you’re just going to write down a to-do list, but then realize you can assign priority to certain items, share them, comment on them, nest tasks within other tasks, assign deadlines and then snooze them, and more. “If I were to write all these features down in a document, you’d read it and you’d say, ‘This is the most complicated to-do app ever.’ But when you’re looking at it, it just looks simple and easy.”

5. DESIGNERS HAVE TO WORK VERY QUICKLY.

For Wadsworth, creating a new prototype for Adobe XD usually takes between three and six months, but that doesn’t mean the team is working at a leisurely pace. “The pace at which we work is pretty frenetic,” he says. While students in design school have the luxury of developing concepts and ideas for projects over a long period, professional designers have to make those decisions much more quickly. “We’ve committed to developing features every month” with Adobe XD, he explains.

Hamblen’s work at AJ&Smart is particularly fast-paced. The firm specializes in “design sprints,” a five-day, intensive prototyping process that’s designed to be an accelerated way for companies to solve a particular problem or come up with a product. In that environment, the initial UX design might need to be completed within just one day so that the design can be prototyped and tested by users by the end of the week.

6. THEY MIGHT NOT HAVE AS MANY USER TESTS AS YOU THINK.

User testing is a vital part of the design process. Designers might create something they think is genius, but if a normal user can’t figure it out, it’s worthless. But while you might imagine that a new product would be tested with dozens of potential users, in all likelihood, it’s a lot less than that. The standard size of a test group is just five people.

“It might not seem like that’s enough people, but there’s a lot of field research that’s gone into [that number]," Hamblen says. A group of five people is big enough to generate useful feedback, but small enough to support tight budgets and quick turnarounds. After two or three user reviews, you start to see patterns in the feedback, but the fifth user might not see something blatantly obvious to others—representing a population that’s not all that tech-savvy, for instance. These test reviewers are typically recruited based on what the hoped-for user base of a product, which could be something like "parents of small children," or "20- to 30-year-olds," or "people who use online banks," or any other kind of characteristic or demographic the company is looking to target.

7. THEY NEED AT LEAST SOME TECHNICAL KNOW-HOW.

UX designers often work very closely with developers, so they need to at least understand the basics of writing code. “A designer needs to understand the core concepts of code for whatever platform they’re designing for,” Wadsworth says, in order to have an idea of the constraints and possibilities of a particular product. “I myself have taken an iOS development boot camp,” he explains. “I’m not doing that as my daily job, but it helps me be a better designer.”

“You do have to have a good understanding of the tasks a developer would have to do," Hamblen says. You can create the most beautiful interfaces in the world, but if your engineers can't translate it into code, it's not going to happen. "I’ve seen designers create stuff that’s impossible to build or just makes the developers' lives so much harder."

8. USERS CAN BE VERY PASSIONATE.

When you’re working on updating a design that’s part of something people use every day, even little tweaks can be a big deal. When Wadsworth and his team change something about Adobe XD, it impacts how creative professionals do their jobs. “People have very strong opinions about that,” Wadsworth says. “More so than just ‘They changed that button from green to blue,’ they’re like, ‘You changed something that was a built-in part of my process and now I’m going to have to relearn something.' There’s a lot of pressure.”

“Whenever I’m out there talking about my job, I show a picture of a woman who has the toolbar from Photoshop tattooed on her arm,” he explains. “That’s how strongly creatives take their tools.”

9. YOU MIGHT BE ABLE TO SEE THEIR FINGERPRINTS IN UNEXPECTED PLACES.

Good UX design may be subtle, but that doesn’t mean UX designers are totally invisible in their work. “I’m in the tutorial file of [Adobe] XD,” Wadsworth says. If you open the sample file designed to help you learn how to use the software, you’re following along with his work. “I’m the designer you can jump in and design along with,” he explains, and the app you watch him create has a personal connection for him. "I’m originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, and so the app that we designed to be the app you learn along with me inside XD is all based on my formative years growing up around national parks in the West.”

10. THEIR WORK ISN’T BUILT TO LAST.

“My life’s work will be gone when I’m old,” Mack says. “I will look back at all the work I’ve done as a UX designer and I won’t be able to go and touch any of it or use any of it—it will all be redone.” Regular product updates, aesthetic trends, and technological change mean that when you’re creating something for the web or mobile devices, it’s not going to stay the same for very long. If you create a website now, you probably aren’t going to be able to go back and look at your work in 10 years. That ephemerality isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. “There’s something I like about it,” he says. “It’s like theater.”

15 Secrets of Courtroom Sketch Artists

Kim Ludbrook, AFP/Getty Images
Kim Ludbrook, AFP/Getty Images

After aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped and found dead in 1932, perpetrator Bruno Hauptmann was brought to justice—and cameras followed. So many lit up the courtroom during Hauptmann's trial and eventual conviction that the American Bar Association successfully lobbied to ban photographers from proceedings due to the distraction. Some 30 years later, during the trial of Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer, Jack Ruby, CBS found a solution. They hired illustrator Howard Brodie to capture Ruby’s expressions.

The rest is history, most of it rendered in charcoal and watercolor. Courtroom sketch artists go where cameras cannot, recording the often-tense atmospheres of high-profile judicial cases featuring the likes of Charles Manson, Bernie Madoff, and Michael Jackson. On tight deadlines, these artists use their craft to communicate the emotions of a courtroom.

But being talented isn’t enough. Speed is essential, and so is finding just the right scene to encapsulate an entire day or trial. “It’s difficult to do,” says Mona Shafer Edwards, a courtroom illustrator in California. “It’s not a cartoon, it’s not caricature, it’s not a portrait. It’s capturing a moment in time.”

To get a better sense of what goes into their work, Mental Floss spoke with three of the most celebrated artists working today. Here’s what they had to say about drawing conclusions to some of history’s biggest stories.

1. THEY HAVE TO DRAW AROUND OBSTACLES.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams featuring Teresa Giudice
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Imagine sitting down to sketch a friend and finding that someone has placed a column, screen, or body directly in your field of vision. Now imagine that if you can’t capture this person’s likeness, you don’t get paid. That’s the most common problem faced by courtroom sketch artists, who frequently have to navigate around obstacles in order to get a glimpse of their subject—often the defendant, attorney, or judge. “You generally have to wait for someone to lean over,” says Elizabeth Williams, an artist based in New York who works for CNBC and the Associated Press, among others. (Most artists are hired by the larger news outlets.) “Fortunately, people aren’t potted plants, and they do move.” If they don’t, Williams will move around the courtroom herself, trying to secure a better vantage point. During pleas and sentencing—and depending on the judge—she might be allowed to sit with other reporters in the jury box.

If visual obstacles remain a problem, some artists might turn to family members. Vicki Ellen Behringer, who works out of California for clients including CBS and Fox, says she once used the father of a defendant as a reference when she couldn’t see his son. “I had studied his son’s face and the father reminded me of what he looks like,” she says. “They looked so much alike.”

2. YOUNGER PEOPLE ARE HARDER TO DRAW.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer featuring Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and his attorney
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

For Behringer, faces with plenty of distinguishing features are a gift. “I love glasses, I love facial hair, lots of wrinkles, anything that shows character,” she says. “The most difficult thing is doing someone fairly young and good-looking. They don’t have lines on their face.” Behringer cites the sketch of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski (above), seated with his attorney. While Kaczynski's weathered look was easy to render, his lawyer—younger and relatively unlined—was much harder to capture.

3. MORNINGS ARE BETTER FOR THEM.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams features Bernie Madoff accomplice Frank DiPascali being led away in handcuffs
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Sketch artists work in a pressure cooker environment. They’re often called to court by news agencies on a day’s notice or less and need to render their drawings quickly. If a crucial moment in a trial happens in the late afternoon, artists may have as little as an hour to finish coloring their piece before scanning and sending it to the news outlets that have contracted the work. “There’s a lot of pressure to turn it around quickly” in time for the evening newscasts, Williams says. If something transpires in the morning, she has more time to refine the work. “Nobody’s really breathing down your back then.”

4. THEY CATCH HEAT FOR CELEBRITY RENDERINGS.

A courtoom sketch by artist Mona Shafer Edwards depicts Gwyneth Paltrow testifying during a trial
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Because celebrities are familiar to people, seeing a court sketch that doesn’t seem to line up can be disconcerting. But according to Edwards, that’s because celebrities aren’t necessarily putting their best face forward. “I was pilloried for making Gwyneth Paltrow look unattractive,” she says, referring to the actress’s appearance (above) during a 2016 trial to testify against Dante Michael Soiu, a man accused of stalking her. (He was acquitted.) “She had no make-up on, wore a beige turtleneck, and her nose was red from crying.” Paltrow’s fans criticized Edwards for the unflattering likeness.

5. THEY SOMETIMES REARRANGE THE COURTROOM ON PAPER.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer depicts players in the 2012 Apple v. Samsung trial
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

According to Williams, some news outlets have strict guidelines about how sketch artists interpret a court scene. The Associated Press, for example, doesn’t allow artists to mess with the proximity of one person to another. If a defendant is four feet from his or her attorney, Williams can’t have their shoulders touching. But other outlets allow for artistic license. “Sometimes you can’t get everything you want and be accurate, so you squish it together,” Behringer says. “You sometimes want the defendant in the same sketch as a judge, or to move the defense and prosecution tables closer together.”

6. THEY SELL THEIR WORK TO ATTORNEYS.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams depicts attorney Robert Hillard in a 2016 trial examining the possible fault of General Motors in a motor vehicle accident
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Like big game hunters, lawyers enjoy a trophy. Some attorneys in high-profile case will approach Williams asking to purchase a sketch that she rendered. “I’ve sold my work to a number of attorneys,” she says. “Generally speaking, they only want it when they win.” Behringer says that some attorneys fresh out of law school will specifically request she come into court to sketch them. “I guess it might be to show parents you’ve finished law school.”

The Library of Congress even has a collection of 96 courtroom drawings from famous trials, with illustrations by Williams among them. They were purchased with funds from the noted L.A. laywer Thomas V. Girardi, best known for working on the California environmental contamination case involving Erin Brockovich.

7. SOMETIMES SUBJECTS ASK FOR A MAKEOVER.

Courtroom sketch artist Mona Shafer Edwards depicts the trial of the Menendez Brothers
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Edwards is sometimes approached by defense attorneys or other jurists and asked if her work could be a little more flattering. “Men will come up to me and ask me to give them more hair or make them look thinner or better-looking,” she says. “It’s never women asking for me to take weight off or whatever. It’s always men.”

8. POLKA DOTS AND BARS ARE BAD NEWS.

A courtroom sketch by Vickie Ellen Behringer depicts accused Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo in 2018
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

Sketch artists need to spend their time capturing and refining emotions and moods. If defendants are wearing prints, it can be exasperating. “White polka dots on dark clothing can be hard to do in watercolor,” Behringer says. “Stripes, too. You don’t want to waste energy into making the clothing accurate. I’d rather put that time into the face. It can be frustrating.” Another Behringer pet peeve: bars. In California, some defendants are arraigned in a mini-jail cell in court, leaving artists to try and sketch them while they’re behind the railing. Behringer illustrated suspected Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo while DeAngelo was in his mini-prison (above), carefully drawing each bar separating him from civilized society. “That was very time-consuming.”

9. THEY SOMETIMES PRACTICE BEFOREHAND.

An artist sketches using a pencil
iStock.com/cherrybeans

When artists book a trial, they know they might only have a millisecond to glimpse a defendant’s face before he or she is either ushered out of the courtroom or takes a seat out of view. To help get a better look, artists will sometimes do some drafts at home using existing photographs as reference before heading to trial. “Occasionally I’ll do that [practice] with someone famous because everyone knows what they look like,” Behringer says. “Even if they’re not a celebrity, looking for certain features in photos helps because you might not be able to see it in court.”

10. THEIR SUBJECTS RARELY COOPERATE.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams depicts Michael Cohen seated next to his attorney during a 2018 hearing
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Unlike normal portrait subjects, defendants and other court personalities don’t usually have a big incentive to cooperate with a sketch artist. They’ll express a variety of emotions, changing expressions so quickly that it can be difficult to nail one down. Covering former Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen (seen above) and his federal hearing for tax evasion in August 2018, Williams was taken aback by his elastic face. “If someone is just sitting there, it’s like, ‘OK, got it,’” she says. “But during his allocution, he was so overwrought, his range of emotions went from fear to depression to practically being in tears. When people are making a lot of expressions, it’s challenging to make it look like them.” She drew 17 Cohen heads before settling on one she liked.

Other times, defendants can be chillingly emotionless. Chronicling the 2016 case of “Grim Sleeper” Lonnie David Franklin Jr., who killed between 10 and 25 people, Edwards was struck by the fact that he seemed unmoved by the trial. “I kept staring at this guy waiting for him to have some reaction,” she says. “He didn’t even lift his head.” Sketching James “Whitey” Bulger in 2013, the notorious Boston mobster who had finally been brought to justice after years on the run, Bulger looked directly at her and shook his finger “no" before trying to cover his face.

11. THEY BOND WITH JUDGES OVER ART.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer Edwards depicts judge Elden Fox and Courtney Love during a hearing
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Most artists have good relationships with judges, who appreciate their work in chronicling important civil and criminal cases. Sometimes, a judge may even decide to talk shop. “I’ve had judges buy my drawings and take me into their chambers to show me what they’ve done themselves or show their collection of art,” Edwards says. “A lot of them have good taste and a good eye.”

12. DEFENDANTS CAN CHANGE THEIR APPEARANCE.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer depicts Jay Leno's testimony while Michael Jackson looks on during Jackson's child molestation trial in 2005
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

Some trials can mean day after day of sketching the same faces. Other times, defendants will experience some fairly radical physical transformations that keep sketch artists on their toes. “Barry Bonds, from the day he was indicted [in 2007, for perjury] to the day the trial was over, lost a significant amount of weight,” Behringer says. “There was another trial in Stockton where the defendant gained a significant amount of weight. People said it was the carbs in the jail food.”

The most dramatic alterations in appearance are usually attributed to the late singer Michael Jackson (above, seen with Jay Leno), who was frequently sketched during his participation in a 2005 trial to refute charges of child molestation. (A jury found him not guilty.) “Every day, he wore a completely different outfit, different armbands, and his hair would change from Monday to Friday. One time, it was longer on a Monday. It’s like, how did you do that?”

13. THEY TRY TO DRAW QUIETLY.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer edwards depicts Clint Eastwood sitting next to his attorney during Eastwood's 1996 palimony trial
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

When cameras are in a courtroom, everyone knows it. When Edwards is around, subjects might not even know they’re being rendered. The artist carries a small 9-inch by 12-inch pad with her along with a small number of tools. “Defendants never know I’m drawing them,” she says. “You might act differently if you’re aware someone is staring. I try to blend in.”

14. O.J. SIMPSON MAY HAVE KEPT THEM IN BUSINESS.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer Edwards depicts O.J. Simpson testifying during his 1995 trial for murder
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

The decision in 1995 to allow television cameras to depict the O.J. Simpson trial—Simpson was accused of killing ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman—seemed to signal a new and relaxed policy about media coverage in courtrooms. “I thought that was it, the swan song of sketching,” Edwards says. “Then it turned out to be a joke.” Judges, fearing they’d be criticized as much as Simpson’s presiding judge Lance Ito, shied away from that kind of scrutiny. “Judges realized they didn’t want to be on camera. So every time I think it’s over, it keeps going.”

15. THEY DO WEDDINGS.

Artist Elizabeth Williams depicts a newlywed couple
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

The nature of the court sketch business has changed over the years as some federal courts are becoming more lenient with the presence of cameras. (While cameras are typically not allowed in federal trial courts, there have been certain exceptions, experiments, and pilot projects to allow cameras; state rules vary.) Experienced artists still find work, but it’s a good idea to have some alternative methods of income. Williams books her services as a sketch artist for weddings on weekends, when court isn’t in session. “People are always getting married, but you can’t always count on ‘El Chapo’ getting arrested,” she says. “You have to do other things.” Williams approaches nuptials in much the same way as a trial. “I’ll meet with a client and go over the key moments.” Instead of closing arguments, it might be the first dance as a married couple.

The biggest difference? “It’s so nice to be around people who are so happy and just beginning their lives, as opposed to people going to, you know, prison.”

All sketches are copyright their respective artists and used with permission.

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