Forensic Art 101

forensic art 101

New to the site, and want to learn the basics about forensic art? This is the best place to start.  If you have a question that you haven’t seen answered, just ask me.  I’ll answer in a blog post as soon as I can.

What is “Forensic Art?”

The boilerplate definition is “any art that can be used in a law enforcement investigation and/or court of law.” Which says everything and nothing. To better understand what forensic art is, it helps to know what forensic artists do, which is, Composite ImageryAge Progressions and Image Modifciations, Facial Approximations from the SkullPost-Mortem Imagery, and Demonstrative Evidence (such as trial charts used in the courtroom)

composite sketchCOMPOSITES are the one type of forensic art that you are probably the most are familiar with. These are the drawings or computer images that you see in the newspaper with headlines like, ”composite sketch released in search of robbery suspect” or “suspect sketch released in area stabbing incident.”

Traditionally, a “composite sketch” meant that the image was hand-drawn by an artist with pencil and paper, and a “composite image” was assembled with a computer application. With the advances in software technology, those distinctions have become blurred. Now, artists can draw directly on a computer screen with a digital pencil, and computer operators can assemble sketch-like images without ever having taken an art course. Sometimes it’s difficult to determine exactly how a composite was created just by looking at it anymore, and in the end it really doesn’t matter. Whether it’s called a composite sketch, drawing, or image, the purpose is the same: to provide police with leads to the identity of the person depicted.  Continue Reading…

age progression fugitiveAGE PROGRESSIONS of adults are pretty much what they sound like: “He’s been gone for 15 years, so take this photo and make him look like he’s 50 years old and balding.” These are done in cases of endangered missing adults as well as fugitives, all in the hopes of generating renewed public interest and fresh leads for investigators. I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but forensic artists don’t have any special gifts or psychic ability to predict what someone will look like in the future. What we do have is in-depth knowledge of facial anatomy, we’ve studied aging patterns of the face, and we have the artistic ability to illustrate those changes. Continue Reading…

facial approximation skullFACIAL APPROXIMATIONS are drawings and sculptures created from an unidentified human skull. These are the coldest of all cold cases. By the time a skull makes it to a forensic artist, all other means of identification have been exhausted. Years, or even decades, have passed. This is why a facial approximation can literally be the last chance that person has to be identified. Which means it can also be the last chance for that person’s killer to be identified. Remember, the investigator can’t begin to find out who the murderer is until they know the name of the victim.
Continue Reading…


post mortemPOST-MORTEMS are drawings or retouched images of unidentified people from morgue photos. Dead people do not look like they are sleeping. Seeing your Great-Aunt Ethel lying peacefully in an open casket is not at all how she looked when she took her last breath. It took hours of work by the skilled hands of a mortician to make her appear the way you remember her.

Death at the hands of another is horrific and violent and awful, and these are the faces forensic artists see every day. Our job is to do the forensic version of what mortuary specialists do. We digitally heal the broken bones, bullet wounds, and decomposition on the faces of the dead so they can be released to the public. Continue Reading…

How can I become a forensic artist?

First and foremost, you must have artistic skill. Don’t believe sales pitches that claim, “anyone can be a forensic artist, no artistic skill needed.” That’s simply not true, and it’s an insult to every hard-working forensic artist out there. You must first know how to draw the human face accurately and realistically before attempting this highly specialized field. Victims of crime deserve our best effort, and it’s not someone that has “learned to draw” a week ago.

Then, you must be willing to join law enforcement. Again, sales pitches may claim otherwise, but 99.9% of forensic artists are law enforcement employees. But they didn’t get to join as a forensic artist. If only it were that easy!

That’s because forensic art positions hardly exist. It is highly unlikely to ever see a “Want Ad” for a forensic artist on or anywhere else. The composite drawings and facial approximations you see online and on TV have been done by law enforcement personnel (police officers, dispatchers, administrative techs, etc) who work their regular job, then do the forensic art assignments as they are needed. Continue reading this post, then read “10 Steps to Become a Forensic Artist” to learn more.

But I’m not in Law Enforcement and have no intention of joining. Could I freelance?

Well, you can try. But you probably won’t get very far; at least if you’re expecting to make a full-time career out of it, pay your mortgage, etc. Agencies are notoriously strapped for cash, and their budgets are usually fixed for each fiscal year. If they haven’t budgeted in for composite sketches, then they simply won’t be able to afford you.

Even offering to to them for free won’t get you far. Law enforcement is a very closed, tight-knit group. It has to be because of the very nature of the work they do, and the dangers they face every day. You can’t just call up and say “I can draw, I want to do composites.” They don’t know you, they have no reason to trust you. You’ll earn their trust by becoming a part of law enforcement yourself.

The only successful freelance/contract artists I know of are:  composite artists that are former/retired law enforcement (they have the experience, and they’ve earned the trust within the agencies); have ties to law enforcement (private investigators) or artists with a strong anthropology and academic background that focus primarily on facial reconstruction.

See more posts about Freelancing

What skills and traits are needed to be a forensic artist?

The most obvious is drawing and artistic skill. Don’t believe anyone that tells you otherwise, because they are probably trying to sell you something. The whole concept of “anyone can be a forensic artist” is ridiculous. To be a forensic artist, you must first be an artist.

To work doing composites, you then adapt that artistic skill through qualified training to learn how to do draw a composite by working through a witness. You must draw what they want, and be flexible and confident in your skills to change that drawing at any moment.  An often overlooked trait in composite drawing is interviewing skills. Building rapport with the victim, having empathy, listening to them, and putting that image that’s in their head on paper. You can be the best  artist in the world, but if you don’t listen to your victim, and draw what they tell you, then you’re next to worthless as a composite artist.

To work doing facial reconstructions and post-mortem images, you need solid artistic skills as well as more advanced training in anatomy, anthropology, and the facial reconstruction process. There are a number of instructors that teach this, but the ones I recommend are on my training page.

What training is available in Forensic Art?

Please check out my Training Page. Just keep in mind, none of these classes will guarantee you work as a forensic artist.

Do I need a Bachelor’s degree to do forensic art?

Generally not. Since most artists do the work within their agency as an adjunct to their full-time position, a degree normally doesn’t enter the equation.  The only time I have heard of a Bachelor’s degree being an absolute requirement is for some full-time forensic art positions. These are usually going to be in state or federal agencies.

Do I need to be certified to work as a forensic artist?

Only if your agency requires it. If they do, they probably mean certification through the IAI, not ones offered through for-profit instructors. It’s possible that IAI certification will help you qualify as an expert witness if you ever need to testify in court, but there’s no guarantee. And it’s much more doubtful that commercial certifications will be recognized at all.

If you desire IAI certification, it will cost about $6000.
Here’s the breakdown:  The testing fee is $300, and the required reading material is $250. (One of the books is out of print, so you’ll need to track that one down.) Then, you will need to complete 120 hours of training. Most 40-hour classes average $800, so that’s $2400, not including the airfare to get to them, and your hotel costs. All told, IAI Certification will cost at least $2950…before adding in travel. Factor that in (let’s say$1000 airfare and hotel stay for each class)  and the conservative estimate is closer to $6000.


There are about 250 forensic artists working throughout the country, and only about 20 of them are certified.  You’ll still be in plenty of good company if you decide against it.

See more posts about Certification