Forensic Art is “The use of facial or graphic imagery to assist law enforcement in the identification, apprehension, or conviction of criminal suspects and offenders, the recovery of missing children and adults, and the identification of unidentified remains.
To get a better handle on that, you need to understand the four main types of work that we do: Composites, Age Progression/Image Modification, Facial Approximation/Post-Mortem Imagery, and Demonstrative Evidence.
A COMPOSITE is a hand-drawn or digitally created image of a suspect made by combining separate facial elements into one finished image. These are considered the “bread and butter” of the field, because most forensic artists will create more composites than any other type of forensic art.
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. Read More…
AGE PROGRESSIONS of adults of adults 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.
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. Barring any new specific information about a person’s appearance, it really comes down to educated guesswork.
Age progressions can provide a fresh look to a case that many people have long forgotten, and can be enough to get the media interested as well. Which is exactly what the investigator is after.
To create an age-progressed image, whether by retouching the photo or doing a drawing, an artist follows the same basic protocol. First, you try to get as much information on the person as possible, such as their lifestyle, genetics, occupation, etc. The more information, the better. This is because you would age someone differently if they were an outdoorsy and athletic person, versus someone that had an office job or was prone to being overweight.
Whether hand drawn or produced with the use of Photoshop, age progressions are just one of several possible “looks’ that a person may have when they age. Forensic artists are not psychic, and there is no guarantee that what is produced will look 100%, or even 75% of what the person may look like when apprehended. But, with a motivated law enforcement team putting the image out there to the public, this can often generate enough interest that people will take a second look, and call in a lead.
AGE PROGRESSIONS of children come with their own special set of circumstances. Since the aging process for adults is vastly different than that of children, the method for producing an age-progressed image of a child is different as well. 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 alive, and in the public’s memory.
FACIAL APPROXIMATIONS are the coldest of all cold cases. By the time a skull gets to a forensic artist, all other means of identification have been exhausted. Fingerprints, DNA and dental records can only result in an ID if those records are in a database that can be compared to the skeletal remains. The hope is that a facial approximation will be recognized by a friend or family member, who can then provide those missing “puzzle pieces” for investigators.
3D facial approximations are sculpted in clay over a replica of the skull. Applying clay to the actual skull is never recommended, most obviously because of the damage that might occur during the sculpting process. Remember, the skull isn’t just an irreplaceable piece of evidence, it is a person.
POST-MORTEMS are drawings or retouched images of unidentified people from morgue photos. Dead people do not look like they are sleeping. Seeing someone lying peacefully in an open casket is not at all how they looked when they took their last breath. It took hours of work by the skilled hands of a mortician to make them appear the way you remember.
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. The responsibility is the same with facial approximations: until the investigator knows the name of the victim, the chances of finding their killer are virtually nonexistent.