Forensic artists are law enforcement personnel who use artistic skill and facial imaging techniques to assist in the identification of criminal suspects, the recovery of missing children and adults, and the identification of unidentified remains.
There are only about 300 or so forensic artists in the US, and most do the work as a collateral duty in addition to their regular job within the agency, such as police officer, dispatcher, or evidence technician. There are only about 30 full-time forensic artists, and we usually work in state or federal agencies.
Essentially, our job is to help identify the living and the deceased, through Composite Sketches, Age-Progressed Imagery, Facial Approximations from the Skull, and Post-Mortem Imagery.
A COMPOSITE is a hand-drawn or digitally created image of a suspect made by combining separate facial elements into one finished image. Twenty years ago, 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. Not anymore. 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.
AGE PROGRESSIONS of fugitives are created to give fresh leads for investigators. Despite what some TV dramas may have you believe, 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. Unless the investigator can tell us some new, specific information about the person’s appearance, it really comes down to educated guesswork, using what we know about the person’s lifestyle and genetics.
Forensic artists don’t normally do age progressions of missing adults unless there is a strong belief that the person was abducted against their will, and might still be alive. More on that topic in a later post.
AGE PROGRESSIONS of children are a different thing altogether. Instead of lifestyle changes, artists must depict the proportional changes of a child’s growth. This requires specialized knowledge, and ideally, specific input from the missing child’s parents and siblings. Many cases of child abductions are a result of custody disputes so this input isn’t always available, but continually updated images of the missing child are a way to help keep the search active, and in the public’s memory.
FACIAL APPROXIMATIONS FROM THE SKULL are done when all other means of identification have been exhausted. Fingerprints, DNA and dental records can only result in an identification if those records are in a database that can be compared to the skeletal remains. The hope is that when a facial approximation is publicized, it will be recognized by a friend or family member, who can then provide those missing “puzzle pieces” for investigators.
No facial approximation can be a portrait of the individual, because there is limited information that the skull gives us. We can tell that a person had wide-set eyes because the eye orbits are widely spaced, but we aren’t going to know things like eye color, how the eyelids fold, thickness of the eyebrows, etc. Under the best circumstances we can come up with a general resemblance to an individual. But, that’s all it really takes if someone is looking for that person, and they call in a tip to police.
POST-MORTEMS are drawings or retouched images of unidentified people from morgue and/or crime scene photos.
Most morgue images are to disturbing to view, so 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.
This takes much more than just knowing how to draw. Forensic artists use their knowledge of facial anatomy and post-mortem changes to do this work successfully.