Forensic Artist Q&A with Artist/Instructor Gil Zamora

Gil Zamora Dove Forensic ArtistBecoming a forensic artist, for me, wasn’t my first choice.  My first choice was wearing the police uniform and chasing down bad guys in the street and putting them in jail. I joined the San Jose Police Department  (SJPD)  in 1985 and began my career like all police officers – at the police academy learning the 10 code and arrest control techniques. I eventually made it out into the streets in 1986 and spent the next 2 years having the time of my life. Briefings were always interesting, and one of the highlights was going over the “Watch Bulletins”.  This was a BOL (Be On the Lookout): a sheet of paper that was filled with composite sketches of suspects that were wanted for felony crimes.  That was the first time I was exposed to the work of Tom Macris, the first police artist in the history of SJPD.  Tom Macris was the police artist from 1982 – 1995 at SJPD. As you investigate the forensic art field, you’ll find his name in the annals of forensic art.

In 1988, my professional life would change from police work to forensic art. While working the midnight shift on patrol in December, I responded to a gang fight call.  While en route to the gang fight with amber lights blaring, a vehicle made a left turn in front of mine and a violent collision occurred.  His car ended up on the lawn of a house (turned out to be his), and by the time I got out of my car he was already standing outside and staggering.  As I got closer to help him, I could see he wasn’t hurt but was stumbling from being under the influence — he reeked alcohol. Within seconds, I administered a field sobriety test and handcuffed him for DUI.  As the fill units poured in from every direction, I started to come down from my adrenaline rush.  While seated in a police car gathering myself to begin writing my report, a supervisor asked me how I was doing, and that’s when my back froze with excruciating pain. Because of this serious, debilitating back injury, I was off work for about a total of 18 months over the next 2.5 years.  My doctor advised me to look for another profession.  I was devastated.

I eventually picked myself up and began to look for my options moving forward at SJPD.  Forensic art became an option.  I met Tom in 1992, and I expressed my desire to learn about composite art.  He was gracious and open to helping me learn as much as I could about this field.  He had told me how he had started and said that he never envisioned this “sketching” to become a career for him.  And thus began an informal apprenticeship that lasted until the day I was formally selected in 1995.  Over those two and half years I spent hours sitting in on his sketch interviews (over 1500 sketch interviews).  I sketched along with him as he interviewed the eyewitnesses.  His sketch interview technique (I call the Advanced Methodology) was quite different from the FBI method (I call the Standard Methodology). He would use reference images at the end of the initial stage of the interview and then proceed to refine the sketch with these images. His work was outstanding and has been revered and admired from some of the most respected names in the field.  He had visited and studied with Frank Domingo (NYPD) and Fernando Ponce (LAPD) to learn the craft of composite art.  This was his training as there was no composite art workshop or university course to take.  He learned from these men and learned from their process to build his own methodology. I was fortunate to have studied with him for so many years and to be able to understand his philosophy regarding the interview process.

At the urging of Tom, I applied to the FBI Composite Art Course in Quantico, VA in 1993 and then attended the Age Progression course in 1994 at NCMEC.  Tom also advised me to take some portrait drawing classes with Bob Gerbracht, a master pastel portrait artist in San Francisco.  My training was well-rounded as he exposed me to the process of meditation and introduced me to works by Elizabeth Loftus and Fisher and Geiselman. I applied for the position of police artist at SJPD in 1995 after Tom decided to put in for his retirement.

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

I don’t remember my first case; however I do remember the case that solidified my position as the next police artist.  It happened in 1993 after about a year with Tom.  Early on in my apprenticeship, it was difficult for me to get sketch assignments.  Most of the detectives preferred to have Tom work on their cases rather than me, and I didn’t blame them.  Anyway, Tom had a lot of foresight and decided the only way for the detectives to embrace the new artist would be to give them no choice. Tom began taking more days off so that I would be the only option available.  One late night, a robbery/murder happened in the north side of the city, and the only lead was a witness who saw a man jump over a fence near his home.  I was called in the middle of the night by the commander of investigations to interview the only eyewitness we had.  At first I was surprised at the number of officers lining the hallways of the homicide unit.  I could feel their anticipation for getting a lead for this case.  There was an eyewitness who saw someone and patrol needed to see what that person looked like. I was the person that was going to give them that sketch.

The stress and excitement of helping on the case faded away as I proceeded through my sketch interview (just as I had done with Tom over the last 500 sketch sessions).  Within 48 hours of the release of my sketch to the media, the rumors had started that they had a break in the case.  It turned out that a Department of Public Safety officer had recognized the sketch to be someone that resembled a person he had processed the night before.  The man was still in custody on unrelated charges.  The homicide detectives met with the man and interviewed him for a few hours.  He eventually confessed to the murder and the case was solved.  The local media embraced the success story and my colleagues at the department were ecstatic about the arrest.  Letters came in from chiefs and attorneys lauding the success of the case and acknowledging my recent apprenticeship with Tom. It was pretty eventful, and the attention regarding the resemblance of the sketch gave me confidence to continue on.

Composite Sketch by Forensic Artist Gil Zamora

Composite Sketches by Gil Zamora Resulting in Arrests of Subjects

What is the biggest misconception that people have about your work?

I think the biggest misconception about my work from the point of view of the eyewitness is that I don’t use reference images.  Many eyewitnesses would ask me, “you aren’t going to show me pictures?”  Many told me that they had seen TV shows where the sketch artist showed the eyewitness pictures of suspects to create the sketch. I just smile and tell them, “we’re going to create the sketch from your memory.”  By the end of the session, they are amazed at what they remember and are satisfied with the likeness of the sketch.  The biggest misconception detectives have about my work is how easy it looks.  They would marvel at how much information I was able to gather from their sometimes reluctant eyewitnesses.  They were impressed with the therapeutic nature of the sketch interview and spent many hours in my office trying to learn the art of focused attention.  I welcomed the opportunity to share with them my philosophy on interviewing.  In the end, my sketch interview process shares a common goal with all forensic artists: to generate a lead which identifies the suspect.

What is the most (and least) satisfying aspect to your work?

I’m sure that many sketch artists feel as I do; my satisfaction in doing my composite art work is tied to the satisfaction in the eyes of the eyewitness.  If the eyewitness is happy with the resemblance of the sketch, then I’m happy to deliver the sketch to the detectives.  As a police officer, you are drawn to the calling of “service” to your community.  That aspect of police work remains at the foundation of my love for forensic art.  As a sketch artist, I have the opportunity to help victims process the violence of the crime while being a part of identifying the suspect to bring about resolution.

I believe that the least satisfying aspect of my work would be the reality that not all sketches lead to identification and/ or an arrest.  The truth is less than half of the sketches I created (over 4,500 total since 1992) resulted in no identification at all.  The factors surrounding the many variables that lead to an identification from a sketch are many, from suspects fleeing the area to fabrications by the eyewitnesses.  The majority of the cases were susceptible to these factors and were an exercise in process.

As sketch artists, on very limited occasions, we sometimes are faced with a high profile case where a victim or eyewitness has great recall and is able articulate enough information to bring about a sketch that allows for this process to work like magic.  In those instances, the confidence is high that the sketch will lead to an identification.  Most of the time it does, and as a result it keeps the value of the forensic artist at the top of the list for resources available to the investigations bureau on “whodunnit cases.”

Most forensic artists use reference images when creating a sketch. You’ve developed a different technique. Can you talk a little about how this method came about?

I had the distinct pleasure to be mentored by one of the pioneers of the forensic art discipline, Tom Macris.  My path into forensic art benefited from his experiences.  We would spend hours talking about his time with Frank Domingo, Fernando Ponce, Horace Heafner and working with Karen Taylor.  He introduced me to the writings of Elizabeth Loftus and Fisher and Geiselman.  He taught me about meditation and the dynamic process of the sketch interview. I studied portrait art with Bob Gerbracht, a fine portrait artist in the bay area, once a week for six months (Tom had taken the same drawing course with him years earlier). Drawing from live models and striving for photorealism gave me some perspective in how I might handle the composite sketch interviews.  It was only when I attended the FBI Composite Art Course in 1993 that I realized how different my composite training had been from my fellow colleagues.  As Horace Heafner (the man who wrote the manual on composite art for the FBI) went around the room asking for introductions, I was taken aback when he decided to tell the class that they should spend their break time picking my brain on how we conducted sketch interviews at SJPD.  I realized what a legacy Tom had left me and how much respect Horace had for his technique.  I spent my week working on composite sketch assignments and enjoying the post-mortem work with Betty Pat Gatliff.  I also met a lot of good people and made some friends along the way. Contrasting the standard methodology (FBI method) and the advanced methodology (Tom’s technique) was very easy.  I had now been exposed to both techniques and could see Tom’s natural progression.  Tom had done a lot reading about eyewitness misidentification and decided to not use the reference images in the same fashion as the FBI technique. Instead, he felt it might be less suggestive if he introduced them at the end of the initial interview stage in order to maintain some integrity of the information gathered.  He also decided to use random booking photos from the county instead of the FBI facial catalog and place the photos in a binder in no particular order to create a more unbiased process. I had conducted well over 1,500 sketches in this technique and felt very confident in the process.

In the fall of 1995 after a few months on my own as the police artist, I reread the books: “Eyewitness Testimony” by Elizabeth Loftus (1979) and “Memory-Enhancing Techniques for Investigative Interviewing, The Cognitive Interview” by Fisher and Geiselman (1992).  I was beginning to see how important it was to develop a rapport with the eyewitness and also be mindful of how I presented information in the interview session.  I read how studies showed that people could be manipulated to make a choice when the information wasn’t there.  The role of the interviewer was key to the results.  Interestingly, in my first sketch sessions with Tom and his eyewitnesses, I had no interaction with the eyewitness and was reduced to creating a sketch while listening to Tom and the eyewitness. I asked if I could be in the office while Tom conducted the sketch interviews.  I sat with a drawing table about 10 feet away (out of sight of the eyewitness) and sketched along as Tom interviewed the victim.  I was forced to create the sketch from what I heard and then compare my finished sketch to Tom’s after his collaboration.  We found this critique process very positive in that my sketches shared remarkable similarities to Tom’s, although I did not have the luxury of having the eyewitness look at my sketch and make some alterations that might have benefited the overall sketch. Ironically, 20 years later my training turned out to be an asset that gave me confidence to create a sketch without collaboration (more on that later).  So, in the spring of 1996 I decided to eliminate reference images from my interview technique, hypothesizing that I would be able to create a sketch based on the eyewitness’ information. The rest is history. I began conducting sketch interviews without the aid of reference images and have never looked back. I call my technique: Compositure®. (See for more information)

Composite Sketch Gil Zamora

Composite Sketches by Gil Zamora Resulting in Arrests of Subjects

In 1998, I was asked to be a part of the Oprah Winfrey Show where they asked forensic artists (three from around the country) to meet with people from their audience to create sketches.  The premise for that segment showed a man removing a purse from a women in the audience and we (the sketch artists) were asked to meet with these people and “do what we do”. The other two sketch artists were very nice, and we all had varying degrees of experience. I remember that one of them had been an administrator with limited sketch experience, while the other artist had numerous years of experience. They both utilized the standard methodology (using reference images). It was an amazing experience and we all received national attention for being on the show. The reason I bring up this show is because I later learned that a Dr. Gary L. Wells was on the program.  The same Dr. Wells that I had been reading about regarding his studies on eyewitness misidentifications (Eyewitness Identification Procedures: Recommendations for Lineups and Photospreads, Law and Behavior, Vol. 22, No.6, 1998). His findings and research on misidentifications resonated with me as a forensic artist.  His work along with others in the field kept cropping up in my quest for more knowledge about our profession.  I figured that if these issues for misidentification and memory contamination were being addressed for police detectives dealing with eyewitnesses of crimes, why wouldn’t it be the same for forensic artists meeting with these same eyewitnesses?  I continue to conduct sketch interviews in this technique and I’m frequently asked to testify in numerous criminal trials about my process.  Interestingly enough, many of the defense attorneys are left dumbfounded as they begin their questioning with, “so, can you share with us the reference images that you use to create the composite sketch?” I turn to the jury and reply, “I don’t use any — I create the sketch from the memory of the eyewitness.” The look on their faces is priceless.  The DA’s have me go through my interview process and delight in my easy manner in delivering the questions I would ask every one of my eyewitnesses regardless of the case.  The jury is able to follow along and seem rather intrigued at the production of such a sketch. The DAs would superimpose my sketch over the actual booking photo of the suspect with great delight.  As one DA put it, it made a huge impact on the case!

I had a great opportunity to speak to my forensic art colleagues at the International Association for Identification conference in Spokane, WA in 2010.  I was asked by Don Stahl to put on a workshop about my technique.  The workshop had a great turnout, and I was able to present my technique to the working forensic artists around the country.  I remember the room had some great anxiety about moving forward with my first task.  I asked the attendees to sketch along with an audio of an actual sketch interview I had conducted years prior.  It was reminiscent of my training with Tom Macris as he conducted the actual interview.  The results were pretty amazing.  Many of the artists in the room were able to create a sketch that resembled the actual sketch that I had created.  I showed the sketch on the large screen for all to compare.  The comments ranged from “amazing” to “I can’t believe I did that without my photos”.  For me, it was an opportunity to share my progression of knowledge about what I had learned as the police artist for SJPD.

Do I think all forensic artists should use my technique? Yes!  As a matter of fact, I would love to travel around the country and help my fellow artists to liberate their composite sketches from the crutch of reference images.  I believe the composite sketch interview process should be more intuitive and less technical.  I believe that allowing the forensic artist to be more creative and utilize their imagination while being mindful of the questions they ask can lead to the same result: a composite sketch that resembles the suspect.  My technique requires that the forensic artist be a very skilled portrait artist (not a master) and an advanced interviewer in the foundation of the cognitive interview technique.  I know that many forensic artists come from varying backgrounds and have a range of experience as artists. I believe we should strive to have some formal training for being an artist and then combine that with academic instruction in human behavior and/or investigative interviewing techniques in order to bring about a composite sketch product that the discipline can say is a minimum standard.  We don’t have that right now, and I believe it holds us down as a recognized forensic discipline.  I know that every working forensic artist right now could conduct a sketch interview with my technique if they dedicated themselves to doing the same research I did.

You teach classes as well. Can you tell readers a bit more about your instruction?

I’ve been teaching my Compositure® technique since 2000. There have been a few graduates from my program that have gone on to working with agencies and they have been successful.  Unfortunately, I never had the time to build a program that allowed me the opportunity to travel the country and present my technique to agencies that might benefit from the contrast in styles in the world of forensic art.  I resorted to offering my course online, and although it has been well-received, I feel that it has been an uphill battle in educating law enforcement agencies about the scrutiny that the realm of forensic art may be under in the near future.  The academic research on eyewitnesses misidentifications are mounting, and it is only a matter of time before someone asks the questions: “What about the sketch artist interviewing the eyewitness? Can they show images to create the sketch without contaminating the memory?  Have we looked at the questions the sketch artist asks during the composite sketch interview?”

I have always been available to the graduates of my program to guide them as they apply for a position and then move on to their first sketch session. It has been pretty rewarding and very exciting to be a part of their beginning. Stay tuned. (Information for Gil’s class can be found here.)


You’ve made history with the Dove “Real Beauty” video, which now holds the record for being the most watched internet ad of all time. You’ve also made me and many other forensic artists proud with the great exposure you have given our field. Is there anything you can tell us about that experience that might have gotten lost in all the media glare?

The Real Beauty Sketches campaign has been an amazing experience.  I was fortunate to be selected as the forensic artist to conduct the social experiment and showcase our discipline in an interesting fashion.  The attention around the world has been amazing and has been so well received by millions of viewers.  One of the reasons the PR firm decided to hire me to interview these real women was because of my interview technique.  They said that my Compositure® technique gave them confidence that I would be able to gather enough information to create the sketch from only their descriptions.  They had seen some previous videos of my interview sessions (on YouTube) and pitched the idea to Unilever. In December of 2012, they got the green light and the filming was set for January 2013.  As we got closer to the filming, I became a little concerned in that I had never interviewed someone without collaborating with them to satisfy the sketch.  In this case it was going to be critical that I not collaborate with the subjects in order to maintain the integrity of the experiment.

Forensic Artist Gil Zamora on Katie Couric Show

Gil on the Katie Couric Show, Demonstrating the “Perspective Sketches”

Dove® had done some research and found that only 4% of women around the world believe that they were beautiful.  They felt that this type of sketch interview might bring about the same results in an illustrated form for all to see.  At first my role was only as the FBI trained forensic artist, and I conducted my interviews as I always do–with integrity to my process. I conducted over ten interviews on the first day of shooting. The second day was longer as I worked on ten more sketches.  The third day was a very emotional day, and a part of me couldn’t believe how dramatic the differences were between the sketches.  That morning was the first time I had been exposed to all of the sketches side by side.  I was pretty impressed with how diligent the PR firm was in keeping me unaware of whom I might be sketching.  For example, I might be sketching Real Woman #2 and then I would interview the describer of Real Woman #8 and then meet with a describer of Real Woman #4, and then meet Real Women #1 and #7.  I was given breaks when I needed them, and I had time to walk away and clear my mind.  It was exhausting and invigorating all at the same time.  I saw the final video the same day the rest of America did on April 15th, and was soon on a plane to New York for a full day of media.  It has been a whirlwind of excitement, and I have been to New York a few times shaking the hands of folks at Good Morning America, Today Show, and the Katie Show.  The emails I’ve received from forensic artists around the world have been positive, and the people that have been touched by the message in this video has been tremendous.  It has given me a platform to be the face of forensic art for a few short days.  I’m hoping that I made us all proud.

How important do you think it is for an artist to be employed by a Law Enforcement agency?

That’s an interesting question and one that I can only give from my perspective.  I obviously was hired at SJPD as a police officer and then applied for the police artist position.  I attended the police academy and was trained in arrest control techniques, report writing, criminal law, laws of evidence, and the moral code that police officers have to abide by.  That journey through the police academy and then through the field training program ingrains you in the subculture of police officers.  Working the streets in patrol gives you some perspective on the fear of victims and you see first hand the tragedies that wreck the lives of citizens.  This type of experience is priceless for anyone who contemplates becoming a trained investigator.  How that forensic artist gets his or her experience to bring that intangible to the table is up to her.  Whether they take some AJ courses at their local community college, serve in the military, study psychology, become a reserve police offer, or bring other life experiences, they need this to somehow meet the experience threshold of someone from law enforcement.  Learning to sketch and interview at an advanced level can be studied and attained by those in law enforcement and civilians.

The advantage someone has from within the law enforcement establishment is that they are immersed in the subculture of police, they understand the laws of evidence, and most of all they understand the protocol.  Someone outside of law enforcement may need to work extra hard to gain the agencies’ trust.  Sometimes all it takes is someone to give you that opportunity.  Other times, it’s the reason you never get the call.  I believe that if every large law enforcement agency found it necessary to have a forensic artist on staff to help with composite sketches, age progressions, image edits, photo analysis, demonstrative evidence and other graphic design support, we would see a standard level of minimum requirements for this type of position.  A position that requires a degree in some discipline of art, criminal justice or psychology and requires that a minimum level of drawing proficiency be present in a portfolio of sketches.  I also would expect that a demonstration of that sketch interview would be a requirement that would be mandatory.  If law enforcement agencies were to adhere to this type of criteria for their forensic artists, there would be no need to be concerned of whether someone comes from within the agency or not, it would only be about the best person for the position.

What advice would you have for anyone trying to enter the field?

My best advice to someone trying to get into the field of forensic art would be to get a degree or some advanced training in the field of portrait art, criminal justice or behavioral psychology.  If you’re not drawing faces every day, you need to start now. When I was studying to be the police artist, I was sketching 3 – 5 faces a day during the week and more on the weekends. Draw from magazines, newspapers, photos, people in the park, people at your work.  After you’ve been drawing for six months at this pace, you should inquire at your local police or sheriff department and find out if they utilize a forensic artist.  If they do, contact that person and ask them how they got started. If they don’t use a forensic artist, maybe you might be the person to fill that need.  Next, you need some forensic art training. I have always directed interested students to the Scottsdale Artists School in Arizona.  The beginning composite art course is taught by Karen Taylor, the author of the best book on forensic art, Forensic Art and Illustration (find it on  I believe Karen’s book is worth every dollar and it gives the aspiring forensic artist an idea about the field in a manner that it not professing but more revealing about the field of forensic art.  Then you might also join the International Association for Identification ( and attend one of their workshops about forensic art.  Be ready to work hard and build a portfolio that you’ll be proud of.  Most of all work, on your interview technique and your professional demeanor.

Artwork by Forensic Artist Gil Zamora

Personal Collection by Gil Zamora
Acrylic on Canvas

Do you do other art besides forensic art?

Not really, but I love painting faces. The fine artists I admire are Chuck Close, Norman Rockwell, and Pablo Picasso.  I love the caricature artists like Seiler and Cowles.  I’ve been so busy with retirement, baseball umpiring and travel these past few years that I haven’t had much time to paint and sketch for me.  I’m hoping I get some more time in the near future and begin to push myself to become a better painter.  I get contacted by people around the country to do portraits and sketches of their loved ones.  Recently I’ve been focusing on staying in the realm of forensic art and producing artwork that was born from my work in law enforcement.  So when people ask me for a portrait I tell them that I don’t draw portraits, I tell them that I sketch Reference Image Sketch Study’s (RISS).  I used to conduct these RISS’s for detectives all the time.

Reference Image Sketch Study™ for Compositure Method

Reference Image Sketch Study™ for Compositure Method

Many times a detective would have an image of the suspect in hand, but they didn’t have enough corroborating evidence to make an arrest.  So they would ask me to create a sketch from the reference image to use as a ruse to gather more evidence (i.e., confession, incriminating statements from associates, etc.) It worked like a charm in most cases.  The detectives were creative in their pursuit of justice and I was able to offer a resource to help in the investigation.  The finished quality of the RISS was not a portrait, it was more like a composite sketch showing an affect demeanor and a remarkable likeness to the suspect.  So far many of my clients find this RISS interesting and a great novelty gift for loved ones and colleagues.

Finally, another new forensic type sketch I offer is called a “Perspective Sketch™”. This Perspective Sketch™ was brought about from my work on the Real Beauty Sketches campaign.  As I had mentioned earlier, I had already been conducting this type of interview technique (sans the collaboration with the eyewitness) in my training with Tom, the added wrinkle to this process was not seeing the subject.  I’ve been asked to perform my “Perspective Sketches™” for other media events and on college campuses throughout the country over the last year and It looks like my bookings are moving into late 2014.  The experience has been tremendous, and as long as people want to see how they see themselves and how others see them, I’ll keep offering this service.

You’ve had a huge impact on the field of forensic art. What else is on the horizon?Gil Zamora Hands2

Huge impact? I won’t go that far.  I will say it’s been a great honor to represent forensic artists around the world who are doing great work everyday and helping victims identify their perpetrators.  My new found celebrity has given me a platform, and I’ll go about my business trying to educate people about forensic art and offer them a glimpse of how I do things.  I hope I can start a dialogue with law enforcement agencies and DA’s on how we might heighten the value of the forensic artist in their department.  I hope that universities around the world begin to offer courses in forensic art training and add degree programs for students interested in criminal justice.  I’m on Twitter and Tumblr and I’m hoping to become a source of information for anyone looking to get a perspective from a forensic artist.

I’m in the beginning stages of writing my own book about my experiences as a forensic artist. It has been stalled by all of this attention this year, but I’m hoping that as things settle down a bit, I can write some more and get this book out for people to read.

Finally, I can say that I’m going to be featured in a new crime show on NBC this fall.  And I’m in the development stages of creating a new TV series about me as a forensic artist. I’m hoping that I can reach out to my colleagues around the country and get an opportunity to present their talents and their challenges to the TV audience. That’s all can say right now, but I’ll be sure to send you a message when I get a title for the show and we get a time slot.  Stay tuned, literally!!

Gil Zamora Forensic Artist