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 work on these more 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.
But that doesn’t mean a composite will look just like the suspect. Composite are not portraits, and given the circumstances under which they’re produced, there’s no possible way they could be. We aren’t drawing what’s in front of us: that’s a piece of cake. Instead, we’re drawing what another person saw, when they were likely in the midst of one of the most terrifying moments of their life: being the victim of, or witness to, a crime. Under the best of circumstances, it’s more likely that we are going to get a general resemblance to the suspect, something that looks close to what that person looked like.
But, just like horseshoes and hand grenades, “close” counts in a composite drawing. A composite has done its job if it catches someone’s attention long enough to have them consider whether the image looks familiar to them, and then calls in a tip top the police.