Forensic Artist Q&A with Artist/Instructor Lois Gibson

LoisI am the forensic artist for the Houston Police Department and all the surrounding law enforcement agencies. I graduated from The University of Texas at Austin With Honors, the FBI Academy Forensic Artist Course (1986) and have been in this profession for 30 years. I did about 3,000 tourist portraits on the San Antonio River Walk (realistic portraits in pastel outdoors during a one time sitting for an immediate fee) and attended Dental School to be a facial prosthesis technician at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

I wrote a true-crime book titled Faces of Evil with renowned writer Deanie Francis Mills, and I wrote a textbook on our profession titled Forensic Art Essentials. The textbook has more than 500 hand-drawn illustrations…if I thought I could explain with a picture and get out of writing, I would draw an illustration! That textbook gives all my best techniques that have helped me draw sketches that helped investigators identify more than 1,266 individuals.

I wrote Forensic Art Essentials so you could look at the illustrations and not really have to do that much reading because I love books like that! The true crime book profiles 12 of my most fascinating cases. Both books make a very strong argument for law enforcement to hire and utilize forensic artists in the last chapter of each. My goal now is to start as many artists in this profession as I can before I go to the big drawing board in the sky. I enthusiastically teach forensic art as part of the effort go to LoisGibson.com to find out about the class). I live in Houston Texas with my elegant husband and artsy daughter.

How did you get started in your career as a forensic artist?

A serial rapist nearly killed me in my apartment when I was living in Los Angeles in 1971. I was too embarrassed to report the attack: I thought the police would think it was my fault since I was a model and a dancer on TV (The Real Don Steal Show). I was destroyed since my family lived far away–and I tried suicide. Then six weeks after the attack, I was driving home and my car steered up a street I didn’t mean to go up! I was forced up a steep hill when at the top, I saw my attacker being pulled out of a house by LAPD: he was being arrested for a large amount of cocaine. After watching him being beaten and cuffed I left in elation! I had seen Justice! I know what it is like to want justice so bad it was nearly killing me, and then I know what it feels like to get justice. I went on to get an art degree, do thousands of portraits on the San Antonio River Walk, and moved to Houston and approached the Houston Police to offer my services. Their resistance was seemingly insurmountable…..except to someone like me who knew that solving crimes was a matter of life-and-death. Despite immense resistance, I convinced them to create a full time job after free-lancing for 7 and 1/4th years.

arrest photos

What is your typical workload like?

In the early 1990’s I was doing about 300 plus sketches a year, now I do about 120 per. year. I have had huge fluctuations in workload and I really do not mind when I get an upswing, since I get more successes and more satisfied detectives.

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

I think a forensic artist needs to be adept at drawing faces–the more adept at faces you are, the more enjoyable the work will be. You must be able to sympathize with all kinds of people, the deeper your sympathy and empathy is with your witnesses, the easier the work will be. You gotta care.

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

Because law enforcement agencies are truly closed-in brother hoods, the best way to be utilized is to get some kind of job inside the agency with which you want to work. Second best would be employment at a law enforcement agency near that ideal agency, as even that will give you a better entrance to the law enforcement personnel than being a civilian “outsider”. This wonderful blog site emphasizes that point a lot and I agree. Hey, I have a saying, “high school is never out” and it is true. As adolescent as it seems, law enforcement officers do not like working with or trying to trust civilians. I super wish it wasn’t like that, but it is! If you read my Faces of Evil, you can see how I worked my way into my police department, but it was harsh and I left out some truly ugly parts. Having said that, my goal is to change this state of affairs. I want forensic artists to be seen as the essential tool they are. I want forensic artists to be able to approach a law enforcement agency, fill out an application, and get a job. There should be thousands of forensic artists working, not the small number we have now.

What is the biggest misconception people have about your work?

Absolutely the biggest misconception is witnesses saying they cannot remember enough to do a sketch and law enforcement believing them. If all law enforcement would read my textbook they would realize every single one of the more than 1,266 successful sketches I did were with witnesses who said they could not do a sketch with me! To quote my textbook, Forensic Art Essentials (page 388, first line) “When a witness to a crime sees the face of the perpetrator, a forensic artist should be engaged to perform a sketch if the detectives are serious about investigating the case.”

If law enforcement would read and understand this, there would be forensic artists in all major cities and in all the states of our country. Said differently, The biggest misconception is the idea that all law enforcement agencies who carry on investigations do not need forensic artists. I am absolutely positive all investigators should use forensic artists when a witness sees the face of a perpetrator. All the forensic artists who have reported results to me say their success rate is about 30%. Finger print gathering solves around 10%. I have a higher success rate when an officer is the witness/victim and for juvenile sexual assault victims (80% and 45% in that order) Also, 100% of the time when any artist does a sketch, it will at least look similar to the perpetrator (unless the witness is lying of course) if/when the perpetrator is caught. Therefore, in practice FA’s are many times more effective than fingerprint gathering. In reality sketches can help develop names of persons who can then have their fingerprints compared to those at the scene. Said differently, The biggest misconception is law enforcement knows they need fingerprint capabilities yet do not believe the newer forensic artists are NOT needed.

Figure 3

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

You should take my class. I give you my best techniques and energize you toward this profession and drawing faces. Practicing forensic artists will feel invigorated toward our profession and new comers will get all they need to get started. I have aggressively tweaked this class to keep making it better for 12 years. The class is so enjoyable several students return for a second session in the last few years. I also give tips like this wonderful blog spot but in more detail and I customize the career search for each student. Forensic artists who already work in the field find I breath new life into their work and give them a new, refreshing perspective on their profession.

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

Easily the most satisfying aspect of my work is when I find out one of my sketches has helped bring in another cruel person who victimized an innocent witness with whom I have shared the grief of their suffering. I force myself to compare the sketch to the perpetrator’s mug shot, and when it is close, all the trials and tribulations and effort are worth it!

What is the least satisfying?

The least satisfying is the thought that law enforcement in general in this country does not believe in my profession. I am doing everything I can to change that perception, every time I get on national TV, give a speech at a convention, in my books, and in any interview I do, I try to “market” other upcoming forensic artists. I am grieved that it seems our profession is growing so slowly, it is almost disappearing. I hope I live to see forensic artists in every part of this nation helping innocent victims, but I admit a cynical (maybe logical?) part of me knows I might die before I can make it change. Even though I am 62 I lift weights and do aerobic exercise about 6 hours a week in an effort to keep my energy up for this effort in which I believe I am engaged.

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

The first composite drawing was with a witness who only spoke Farsi in a room the size of a phone booth…..nothing ever happened. The first time I succeeded was my third attempt. I drew a face from a witness who saw a man stabbing another man to death in our Memorial Park. He was hysterical and I thought I did a piece of “!$#%$%^” and went home determined I was done sketching forever and I promised myself I would never go back to the Houston Police Department ever again. The next day the detective on the case called to say the room mate of the murderer had called his name in and the likeness was amazing. I was so negative on the phone he forced me to come downtown where he explained that the only thing that solved the case was my sketch. The murderer and his room mate lived almost to the Mexican border. Two friends called the roommate joking with him being involved in a murder when they saw my sketch on TV, and that is when the real murderer got turned in. After that I decided I would always do this work, because honestly, that successful sketch was a horrible piece of $#!*. I realized if a pitiful, smudgy, half-finished drawing like that could stop someone who murdered people for fun, I knew I was hooked on this work for life.

Successful forensic art

Is there any case that stands out in your memory?

For the Baby Grace case, I had to travel to the Galveston Medical Examiner and look at a decomposed baby girl who had been murdered, placed in a big blue plastic utility chest, and thrown into Galveston Bay. The sight was unimaginable. I took back photos and did a full color pastel portrait in 45 minutes. That drawing of a smiling blond baby girl was released November 2, 2007. By November 5th, the grandmother in Ohio had notified authorities she thought it might be Riley Ann Sawyers, and it was. Two people, mom and step dad, were identified, tried, and convicted because on that heart-wrenching work.

For the Baby Grace case, I had to travel to the Galveston Medical Examiner and look at a decomposed baby girl who had been murdered, placed in a big blue plastic utility chest, and thrown into Galveston Bay. The sight was unimaginable. I took back photos and did a full color pastel portrait in 45 minutes. That drawing of a smiling blond baby girl was released November 2, 2007. By November 5th, the grandmother in Ohio had notified authorities she thought it might be Riley Ann Sawyers, and it was. Two people, mom and step dad, were identified, tried, and convicted because on that heart-wrenching work.

Baby Grace

Baby Grace

What other type of art do you do besides forensic art?

I do fine art portraits, including the Mayor of Houston (Bob Lanier) for the public works building, and I love doing watercolor landscapes, especially when I travel. I carry a small WC set and illustration board in my luggage and make my ultimate souvenirs. I paint landscapes in oil and like doing pieces of land that are floating in mid air. I did those beginning in the 1970’s, long before the movie Avatar.

Lois Gibson watercolor

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

I never want to do anything but forensic art.

What job would you absolutely hate?

I had a job on the 7th floor of an insurance company on Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles where all I did was type numbers. This was before word processors where you had to erase and use white-out goop on your mistakes. It made me want to die. I would call in sick, feeling truly sick, and when I hung up the phone and knew I didn’t have to come in, all the sudden I felt terrific!

booksYou’ve written several books, been featured on numerous TV shows, and are listed in Guinness Book of Records as being the World’s Most Successful Forensic Artist. What else would you like to accomplish…anything coming up soon?

I have my class coming up in April that I thoroughly enjoy teaching. I want as many forensic artists as possible to come learn from me. I want the profession of forensic art to spread so that innocent victims of crime in all cities and states have a forensic artist available to them to help get justice!

Comments

  1. Sherry Reddick says:

    Lois,
    Thank you for sharing your background and personal opinions with us.
    Sherry R.

  2. I agree, Lois is the best, and probably the most generous artist out there!

  3. Don & Eleanor McWilliams says:

    Lois is the best forensic artist in this country! And she is a dear friend of ours. My husband, Donald, was instrumental in getting her hired to be Houston Police Department’s forensic artist.