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.
The following shows the general process of the “Combination Method” of facial approximation. Here, the artist applies tissue depth markers to the replica, but adjusts the thickness of each area depending on the skull’s individual shape and structure.
No matter which method of facial approximation is used, the forensic artist should always work in collaboration with a forensic anthropologist, use the most contemporary tissue depth data, and follow the most current scientific guidelines.
In the “Russian” and “Manchester”method of facial approximation, the artist sculpts the underlying musculature before adding fat and flesh to create the face.
This method is still fairly subjective, because there’s no way for the artist to know how much fat and flesh should be applied on top of the sculpted muscles. This ends up being a time-consuming process that is, realistically, no more accurate than the combination method.
If an artist is unable to make replica of the skull, or simply prefers drawing to sculpting, then the 2D method can be done instead. Here, the artist takes photographs of the skull, and draws the features instead of sculpting them. Doing this digitally with a software such as Photoshop is the more efficient and preferred method, rather than using pencil and paper.