Art on deadline

Betty Wells can sketch and color a scene from a congressional hearing faster than most of us can draw the arms and legs onto a few stick figures. In her roughly 30-year career as a news illustrator for NBC News, Wells used pens, pencils, markers and other media to reproduce the wild gesticulations of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the divisive hearings on the Panama Canal Treaty, the drama of the Watergate scandal and other high-profile news events and figures — all on tight deadlines. She would go where cameras couldn’t to help her news organization deliver the latest updates.

Wells, 83 and retired, is now releasing a limited number of her pieces of artwork to public institutions and private donors. (Wells’ status as an independent contractor for NBC allowed her to maintain the rights to all of her sketches.) She also has a forthcoming memoir that details the exclusive access she gained to the Supreme Court; her undercover investigative assignment on the Church of Scientology; and the job she sketched, wearing night-vision goggles, while staking out the house of someone involved in the 1980s Abscam public-corruption takedown.

Wells sat down with The Hill to explain how a woman who started her professional life as a fashion illustrator wound up speed-drawing some of the most important people and events in our country’s history.

Q: What are some of the most memorable Capitol Hill moments for you?
[Congress was] the hardest assignment of all. Absolutely, because of all the big rooms and all the many people — the wide shots.

Q: So how would you approach a Capitol Hill assignment?
With trepidation, nervousness, because I knew what it entailed, and it would be important as to whether the function I was covering was in the morning or afternoon. Because if it was in the afternoon, and the deadlines approached, that was hard. So if it was in the morning, great, because that meant I had more time to do those wide shots and group shots and single heads.

Q: How would you sketch so many people in such a short amount of time?
In opera, they have blocking rehearsals where you block in where people stand, and that’s the way I would start — blocking with very shorthand pencil notes, and then go right to pen and ink. And then markers, and then finish up with colored pencils.

Q: Which members of Congress did you like sketching?
[Ted] Kennedy. I thought he was the handsomest thing walking. He was beautiful; he was very passionate in speaking. And I thought [Sen. Richard] Lugar [R-Ind.] was kind of interesting, too — just interesting to sketch. And [Sen. Herman] Talmadge [D-Ga.] was fascinating. He was all over the place — hands, facial expressions and cigars.

Q; Is it good if your subjects are all over the place?
Oh, yeah. I love that. I like action. And I liked anybody that was demonstrative, because it made my job easier. And I love to do hands. When they’re doing hands, it adds to it. They tell so much about a person’s personality.

Q: What were some of the hardest aspects of news sketching, or aspects you didn’t like?
A person whose face is hard to do because there’s not so much of an interesting nose or jaw or eyebrow or something. Like Sen. [Daniel] Brewster [D-Md.] was very difficult. He had a pale face, pale hair. He just had no striking piece of information on the face. It was just very difficult to get him.

Q: How did you get so fast at sketching?
In art school at [the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)], my instructors used to say, “Where’s the fire, Betty? Slow down. Slow down.”
And you know, when I was in fashions, my father used to say, “Charge by the piece, not by the hour; otherwise you’ll get slower, you won’t make as much money.” So I really knocked them out fast, and I got more money that way.

In advertising — this was at the May Co. in Baltimore — I said depending on the size of the sketches, I want at least $10 per sketch, at least. That is the bottom price. I came in after school at MICA, and [the boss] had a double spread of newspaper for me to illustrate. Forty drawings — 20 on each page. So I sat there and knocked them out before I went home that evening. And I handed him a bill of $400. He said, “No way am I going to pay this! Four hundred dollars for three hours of work? That’s ridiculous!” I said, “If you can find another artist who can sit down here and knock out 40 drawings in three hours, go for it.” He signed the check, and we were great pals after that.

Q: How did you get exclusive access to the Supreme Court?
The clerk of the court gave me a note: Chief Justice Warren Burger would like to see you in the chamber at the break. I was sketching for NBC News.

And so I went back, and he showed me his sketches and his little watercolors … that he had done, and he wanted to see my work.

And I said, “Mr. Chief Justice, I just finished my own story of the White House, and I would like to do my own story of the court here,” because my uncle had argued several cases before the court, and I’ve always been fascinated. And I said, “Walking around the court, I see different people working here, and I’d like to do a story about the court and all the people who work here.” And it was like a little primer. So he said, “Submit the list, and we’ll work with you. I’ll inform the police and all of the guards and members of the court that you’re going to be around.”

And so I got invited to all kinds of wonderful places and things for a year. That was in 1978. I did 200 pencil sketches, from which I did about 60 paintings.

Q: What’s it like sketching people who are undergoing trial for heinous crimes?
In doing [convicted Beltway sniper Lee Boyd] Malvo, he was such a young boy and so innocent-looking. Sweet kid. And this monster took him and turned him into a mass murderer. And this boy had talent as a sketch artist — I had one of his sketches. … And to turn a person into this killer was just awful. And some people were like, “Why don’t you show him as ugly?” He wasn’t ugly. He was a tender-looking young boy, and your heart went out for him.

Q: Do you miss news illustrating?
No, not really, because I’m so busy with my own art today, and it’s really hard work. It’s hard, physical work.

Anyone interested in learning more about Wells’ artwork can contact Keri Douglas at keridouglas@mac.com.