Forensic Artist Q&A: Michelle Hinojosa

Forensic artist Michelle Hinojosa

Forensic artist Michelle Hinojosa

I have been an Investigative Specialist with the Richardson Police Department since 2007.  I work in the Criminal Investigations Division.  I research anonymous crime tips, complete backgrounds checks on suspects, recover stolen property from pawnshops, obtain and view surveillance video, show lineups, create BOLOs and occasionally go on search warrants to assist with collecting and documenting evidence. This civilian position was created to assist the detectives with their investigations.  However, once in a while, I contribute to an investigation by providing a composite sketch.  My agency is located in the Dallas metroplex.

How did you get started in forensic art?

I was in school working towards a master’s degree in Forensic Anthropology and enrolled in a “Human Identification” course, not realizing it was a sculpting class (3D facial reconstruction).  Had I known, I probably wouldn’t have signed up for it, as I have zero artistic background.  In the class, we learned how to make plaster casts of skulls and were taught Betty Pat Gatliff’s “American” method of sculpture.  Supplies were limited (we were provided with taxidermy eyes) however, the instructor was enthusiastic and encouraging.  I immensely enjoyed the entire process while recognizing I needed improvement.  I signed myself up for two of Betty Pat’s sculpting classes (beginners and advanced) and decided this is what I want to do as a career.  Unfortunately, there are not many agencies out there looking to hire a full-time forensic artist, much less someone who sculpts exclusively.  I realized the only feasible way I could practice forensic art would be to learn how to draw composites and get hired with a police department.  So I took Stuart Park’s ‘Composite Drawing for Law Enforcement’ course and started applying to police departments in my area.  When I got an interview for an Investigative Specialist, I brought along samples of my artwork and let them know I was interested in sketching composites.  I ended up getting the job and started sketching within a month of being hired.

What type of forensic art do you do?

I am only tasked with composite sketches at this time.  We are a small agency and do not have any unidentified remains cases.  I am trained in Postmortem Drawing, 2-D and 3-D Facial Reconstruction, and Age Progression.  I have such a passion for 3-D that I would do it gratis if I could find an agency with which to volunteer my services.

Do you prefer one type over the other?

Yes, I definitely prefer sculpting on the skull.

 

forensic artist sculpting

composite sketches

Composite sketches resulting in arrest

Describe the amount of forensic art you do; are you full-time, or as-needed?

As needed.  I average about one sketch per month.  I have done as many as five in one week and also had a slow year with only two sketches that year.

What qualities do you think are important to have as a forensic artist?

Humility and tenacity.  It is important to never stop trying to improve yourself.  I sketched for two and a half years before I got my first “hit”, but I kept plugging away, not even certain myself that I could do this.  Until you get your first hit from a composite, you are not really sure that the process works or that you can effectively translate the witness description into a drawing.  Before I got a hit I actually began to believe that the successful artists who routinely get hits must have some sort of sixth sense that perhaps they weren’t even aware of, which guided them through the process.  Now I know that it is a good witness who should be credited with the successful composite.

Do you think it is important for a forensic artist to be employed by a law enforcement agency?

I think it is nearly impossible to get any projects if you are not affiliated with a law enforcement agency.  I don’t think it is a requisite to do the job, I just think people aren’t willing to give you a chance unless you are already employed in some capacity by law enforcement.

Have you ever testified to your forensic artwork?

Not yet.

What is the biggest misconception people have about your work as a forensic artist?

A misconception is that composite sketching is my hobby and that it’s not real work.  Sketching doesn’t come easy for me; it is hard work, sometimes even tedious.  Due to my composite training, I am subject to being called out 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  I have been called at 6am on a Saturday, on more than one holiday and have ended up having to stay late with no advanced notice.  Although it is not my favorite style of forensic art (I’d rather devote my time to sketching or sculpting unidentified victims instead of only the bad guys all the time), I think sketching composites is a good way to get started in this line of work and is a necessary skill you must possess if you want to be a forensic artist.

composite sketch

Examples of Hinojosa’s composite sketches

What advice would you give for someone trying to enter the forensic art field?

Take some anthropology courses to learn about human variation and anatomy so you will be familiar with differences between males and females as well as traits that differentiate the various ancestral groups.  As far as art training goes, make the investment in yourself and try not to become sour about having to pay for your own training.  Not only do you learn new techniques and tips, but after taking a class, I get a momentum that propels me forward and inspires me to do something positive.  It also keeps me humble when I see the level of talent that other students in the class have, and that gives me something to strive towards.

What is the most satisfying aspect to your work as a forensic artist?

It’s a good feeling when you get a hit on one of your sketches and a suspect is positively identified.  I like to be able to demonstrate that the composite process works!  When you have a suspect to compare your sketch to, you can use it as feedback to determine what you are doing right, what needs improvement, what the witness was trying to tell you, and use it as inspiration to get better so you can help even more people by getting more hits.  When you see similarities between the suspect and your drawing based on the witness description, you feel like yelling out, “See?  This is what I’ve been talking about.  I’m not making this stuff up, people!”

What is the least satisfying?

The least satisfying is not being able to participate in the follow-up investigation.  In my situation, once the sketch is turned over to the detective(s), it is up to them to follow up on any potential leads.  Since I sketch only for my department, I am able to keep tabs on how the investigation is progressing and when the case gets inactivated.  It can be frustrating when you feel there was a lead that didn’t get followed up on for reasons you aren’t aware of, or see your sketch end up in a file folder and not get distributed at all in some cases, and sometimes they even forget to tell you when an identification has been made.

Do you remember your first composite drawing? How’d it go?

Yes I remember it did not go as well as I hoped it would.  The witness was a very laid-back pizza delivery guy who got robbed, didn’t take the whole thing seriously and seemed quite surprised at how much work went into the sketch.  In the end, he stated he was not confident in the finished product, so the sketch was never distributed.

Is there any case that stands out in your memory?

I had a case that required me to do the composite at the victim’s house which was over an hour away from the station.  She had no overhead lighting, only a lamp for lighting which kept overheating and turning itself off, and the sun was quickly going down.  It was extremely difficult for us to go through the mugshot book and to complete the sketch.  Plus we were under a time crunch because it was a high profile case that they wanted to get on the 10 o’clock news.  By the time the media presented a scanned image of the sketch, it was quite a bit darker than the original, and the witness was upset because she thought it no longer resembled the suspect.

Were you always artistic, or did you discover the ability later?

No, in fact, I’m still trying to discover the ability!

Do you do any other type of artwork other than forensic art?

No.

Do you watch any of the crime shows, like CSI, Bones, etc?

I prefer the true crime shows like Forensic Files and Cold Case Files, but I do occasionally watch the dramas that feature a Forensic Anthropologist like Bones and Body of Proof.

What other job would you be interested in trying, if any?

I still haven’t given up the hope of being a Forensic Anthropologist someday, but it requires a PhD.  In these challenging economic times, I just can’t justify quitting my job to go back to school for two or three more years, knowing that there would be no guarantee of a job upon graduation.  I would also love to have a job where I could investigate Missing Persons cases.  I am haunted by the estimated 40,000 unidentified remains across the U.S. that nobody is working to resolve…

What job would you absolutely hate?

I think I would hate waitressing.

What else about you or your work would you like others to know?

Make sure to network with other fellow artists when given the opportunity.  After all, I often learn just as much from fellow artists as I do from instructors.

To contact Michelle directly: michellehino{@}msn.com

Comments

  1. Sherry Reddick says:

    Spot on interview.
    Michelle, you give depth and professional prowess to a great field. I hope this article inspires others to seek this field of study an option.
    Have a great week.
    Sherry

  2. Great Interview Michelle. It’s great to hear about the different backgrounds of individuals coming into this field. It’s amazing that you had no professional training prior to this endeavor. I think you are very artistic. Keep up the great work!