Whenever I hear this question, I always have to think back to years ago when I was doing graphic art work, and didn’t know a thing about forensic art. Or, the only things I knew about forensic art was what I learned from TV, and we all know how reliable that is. Back then I looked on it in wonder…those artists must be psychic! They must have special powers. They must know things that I’ll never, ever be able to know in a million years.
The reality is, of course, a bit different. It’s not magic: it’s years of experience, solid training, solid drawings skills, listening skills, people skills, and procedure.
One way or another, sketch artists follow a procedure in order to get the image that is in a victim’s mind out and on paper, where it can be used to generate leads, and ideally lead to the perpetrator. It’s not a cut-and-dried process, because every situation is different. And you’re working with people that have very likely been through one of the worst experiences in their lives. You can’t be robotic in this line of work, you can’t follow a script, because that’s phony and artificial, and a victim or witness will pick up on it in a heartbeat.
But the gist of it is, an artist meets with a witness, and tries to set them at ease. They’re not asked to relive the crime; they’ve been traumatized enough, and that can also harm their recall. Basically, it’s a free-flow of information, with the witness doing most of the talking after the artist says something like: “What can you tell me about what this person looked like?”
Then, the artist sets out to draw what the witness describes…”he had a round face, close-set eyes, and large nose”… and they also use reference images to pin down the verbal description even more. Forensic artists can get in some heated discussions about when it’s best to break out those images, but most artists, at some point in the interview, will use reference images to get on the same page with what the witness is describing.
You know the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”…well it’s true here as well. You don’t want to frustrate a witness by drawing-erasing-drawing-erasing a hundred times over when they are trying to describe a feature, when they can more easily point to an image and say “his nose looked that THAT.”
So even though there is procedure involved, and a method, sketch artists still do pull off some incredible, phenomenal things. But they’d be the first to say they’re not heroes…the witness is. Because no matter how well an artist can draw, they can’t put pencil to paper without that witness telling them what to do. After all, they’re the one that saw the bad guy…not the artist.