#1: You must join law enforcement.
#2: You must possess artistic skill
People who insist on trying to freelance have argued with me on the first point, but it’s how it is. You can’t get access to witnesses, evidence, and sensitive investigative information unless you’re employed by law enforcement. Period. And you can’t become a forensic artist (a good one, anyway) unless you have artistic skill. I’ll go into more depth about this elsewhere on this site, but those are the first two things that you will have to accept in order to have any shot at all.
Then, accept the reality that forensic art will probably not be your full-time job. There are only about 30 full-time forensic artists in the U.S., so snagging one of those positions is like winning the lottery. Easily 99% of the composite drawings and facial approximations you see have been done by “dual-duty” forensic artists; law enforcement personnel (police officers, dispatchers, administrative techs, etc) who work their regular job, then do the forensic art assignments as they are needed. Again, that’s just how it is.
But the good news is that it is possible to become a forensic artist, you just need to know how to go about it. So while there are no guarantees to getting any job, especially in such a niche field like this, I do believe I’ve come up with a clear and concise path to follow here:
1. Get a Bachelor’s degree in art if your ultimate goal is a state or federal job. If not, start at step 2. For your degree, a mix of drawing, sculpting and design is ideal. Of course, you can still get a degree either way, but it’s not usually a necessity for forensic artists unless they are in full-time state or federal jobs.
2. Decide on a regular, full-time job you’d like to do in Law Enforcement.
Police officer? Crime scene technician? Administrative professional? Take this step very seriously. If forensic art doesn’t work out you need to be happy in this career.
3. Research geographic areas where you can identify a need for a forensic artist, in addition to the job you decided on in step 2.
4. Get the necessary training to be eligible for the job you chose in step 2.
5. Get hired by a Law Enforcement agency in one of the geographic areas you identified in step 3.
Put your forensic art ambitions on the back burner for now. You need to do a great job in the position you were hired for first. Dazzle your supervisors; gain their trust.
6. When you’ve been there long enough to prove your worth, talk to your boss about your desire to do forensic art.
Let them know your main job always comes first. Are they open to the idea and willing to send you out on composite drawings? If yes, proceed to step 7. If “no”, you can (a) try to change their mind, (b) wait until they retire or leave, or (c) move to a different agency.
7. Get at least 40 hours of training in composite drawing.
There’s no point in doing this until you are employed by an agency, unless you are willing to spend thousands of dollars for training you may never use. You’ll probably have to pay out of pocket, but at least you’ve confirmed that your supervisor will send you out to do casework. Check out my training page for my personal recommendations.
8. Volunteer within your agency to go out and do composite drawings.
You’ll know about these opportunities before they turn up in the newspaper because you are on the inside of an agency. Volunteer to help sister agencies too. Keep track of your successes. You’ll need them.
9. Keep your eyes peeled on state and federal job websites if you want to be a full-time artist at one of those agencies.
If not, proceed to step 10. Keep in mind that an opening can take years to materialize. Apply if one opens. You now have a degree, years of experience, and a portfolio of successful forensic artwork. You are an ideal candidate, and the agency would be lucky to have you.
If the state or federal job doesn’t work out, then:
10. Impress upon your boss that based on your proven track record, you should be doing forensic art 100% of the time.
I know several forensic artists who worked their way up from a part-time to full-time position, and went on to create and supervise a whole forensic art unit. This is where most full-time forensic art jobs are by the way: in state and local agencies, created through the sheer force, grit, and determination of a talented individual who was willing to work hard and do what it takes.
Even if step 9 or 10 doesn’t happen….guess what: you are still a forensic artist!! You attained that goal at Step 8 when you weren’t even looking! And, you have it all over those other people that said they wanted to be a forensic artist but never took the steps to get there.
If you are interested in doing facial approximations from the skull and post-mortems, these steps still apply.
Most artists that do post-mortem work started by doing composites within their agency. Because they were “on the inside,” they were able to form relationships with medical examiners, coroners, and detectives that have unidentified remains cases. Being a law enforcement employee, they were in the prime position to work these cases, and had a massive, well-earned advantage over someone outside of law enforcement. You will need additional training of course, and should always work with an anthropologist.
Learn more about becoming a forensic artist, and read a sample of my new book here.