Exercise 2 – Courtroom Drama

Exercise 2 – Courtroom Drama – Research on Frank McMahon

The work of American reportage illustrator Franklin McMahon (1921–2012) is an excellent example of how drawing can be used to document courtroom dramas. The following drawings are taken from his 1955 visual documentation of the trial of two men accused of murdering a black Chicago teenager Emmett Till who was visiting relatives near Money, Mississippi.

Look at the drawings and reflect on how McMahon has approached the task of documenting a courtroom drama. How does his approach to drawing tie in with the notion of journalism and truth? What do you think he’s managed to capture in these drawings and how has he done it? Write a short statement summarising your reflections.

You may want to annotate some of the drawings, highlighting particular areas of interest.

Franklin McMahon drew on spec.  He drew from a young age and his cartoon drawings were featured in the high school newspaper.  He went on to study art and his courtroom work began in 1955.

He worked in mostly charcoal and pencil and although his work was done on site, he would colour the images later in acrylic watercolours.  His work is fast and very loose, strong pencil and charcoal outlines.  His lines are very cartoon like and rather than opt of chalk or pastel to fill large sections or colour in people, he left it blank.  As he progressed, he showed the movement of the person by simply drawing over the last image.  The paper was lined or plain white, but often looked like he drew on something that was to hand at the time.  Notes are dotted around the image as if simply taken down without thought.

The canvas or page is being fully used.  There is no division of space that allocates to text and image, they all blend.  There are no sequences or panels to define one moment to the next, it is a reaction to the scene in front of him.

This execution of recording images allows for the energy of the image captured to remain.  You feel there is more of a connection between what was observed and you observing it as if you were there.  There hasn’t been an edit of what was viewed and so you get a sense of the situation.  It is far more revealing even though it is a sparce line on the page.

In an article about his work by Daniel Zalkus which is featured on the website ‘Illustration Age’, he mentions that perhaps Franklin was influenced by Andy Warhol, Ben Shahn, and David Stone Martin.  It appears that his work has the impression of theirs in it, but it isn’t confirmed whether he sites these as an influence.  They too have a cartoon style and loose line but clear and definite responses to the spaces they see.  They’re a reflection of realism but not a replica. 

We can see that his line does lift off the page but there are times when it feels like he was drawing with one continuous line or blind contouring in places.  He may have kept looking at the scene while allowing his pencil to capture it without lifting it off the page.

It was very much a reaction drawing to the situation he was in.  He captured the energy of the people in the room and without giving painstaking detail to each person, he managed to draw the key features and important details.  He left out a lot of information that he didn’t deem important, such as the furniture, onlookers, and room.  The building wasn’t important in these images, the people were and their reactions.  As such, facial features and hand gestures became the focus, but clothing unless notable, did not. 

Mrs. Bryant and her Lawyer.

Observations from the image are as follows:

  1. Notes on the interaction are made in relation to the jury not being present.  An important detail for him and it also gives us an idea on the type of atmosphere in the room.
  2. A side profile of the lawyer speaking to her and the movements he makes is captured.
  3. Her eyes are down and she is listening and although her body is still her hands are captured as moving, but the movement is limited.
  4. His signature is not to the right hand side, it is to the left here.  A quick sign off.  In the other images they’re also on the bottom but appear on the left, middle and right, there is no preference given for it.

Courtroom Montage/Two Men and hanging hats/ Sketches of Willy Reed

Observations from the 3 images are as follows:

1 The man is in shadow or perhaps it’s denoting his skin colour.  It isn’t clear to me.

2. The water and glass and black shadow or book cover aim to keep your attention here.

3. The colour wash of brown aims to draw the eye around to the speaker standing up.  Our eyes are brought in from the left, drawn to position 1, then 2, then 3 and we finally rest on the man standing.  The block of black colour for his pants keeps our eye within the centre of this image where the action is taking place.

4. The hats are in a line and beside the door above the heads of the two men.  There is more focus on the hats in the room than on the two men.  Maybe this detail was more important to give us information on how many were present, indicating a full room perhaps. 

5. There are notes above the figure, perhaps key details heard that he thought important to note.

6. There are three images of the same man drawn over each other.  They’re almost like a frame of animation.  We get a sense of the man’s movements in court.

What can I take from these observations moving forward?

  • Try using different paper – lined, jotted, napkins, wrapping from boxes.
  • Try using pencil and charcoal only – add a splash of colour after.
  • Don’t be afraid of drawing over the existing drawing.
  • Draw what you see, don’t go for perfect – it isn’t about realism, it’s about capturing the action
  • See if you can identify a key trait from a featured person in the observation – by that I mean that in the courtroom montage each of the characters is doing something; smoking with arms crossed, hands to face, hands crossed, writing, holding a file or resting with fingers and hands together.  A large nose, small mouth, massive head, moustache, any feature is more pronounced to distinguish them from the others.


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franklin_McMahon  13.18  14.03.2021

https://www.mcmahongallery.com/franklin-originals  13.19  14.03.2021

https://illustrationage.com/2019/05/06/turn-back-the-pages-franklin-mcmahon/  13.22  14.03.2021  Daniel Zalkus