How to Become a Forensic Artist in 10 Easy Steps
Ok, I was joking about the ‘easy’ part. But still,
what follows is the best advice you will ever get on becoming a forensic artist, because it’s true, and I’m not trying to sell you anything.
The first thing you must understand and be willing to do is join law enforcement.
That’s how every other forensic artist working today has done it, and if you’re serious about this career, then that’s what you are going to have to do too. But here’s the kicker: Your full-time job isn’t going be as a forensic artist.
That’s because there are only about 30 full-time forensic artists in the United States, 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, and the exceptions to this are so rare, you will spend a lot of time, money, and frustration attempting to do it any other way
Why must you be a law enforcement employee?
You can’t get access to witnesses, evidence, and sensitive investigative information unless you’re employed by an agency. 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 these are the first three things that you will have to accept in order to have any shot at all.
But the good news is that it is very 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 think I’ve come up with a clear and concise path to follow here:
Ten Steps to Become a Forensic Artist.
There are no guarantees to getting any job, especially in such a niche field like this, but I believe I’ve come up with a clear and concise path to follow here. Make sure you've read these steps thoroughly to understand the basics.
1: GET A BACHELOR’S DEGREE IN ART IF YOUR ULTIMATE GOAL IS A FULL-TIME STATE OR FEDERAL JOB. IF NOT, START AT STEP 2.
For your degree, a mix of drawing and sculpting, with some criminal justice credits would be great. But an English or Math degree might be fine too. Some agencies don’t care what your major was, they just want you to have a degree with a decent grade point average.
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.
8. VOLUNTEER WITHIN YOUR AGENCY TO GO OUT AND DO COMPOSITE DRAWINGS.
You’ll know about these opportunities before they turn up in the news 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.
IF YOU WANT TO DO FACIAL APPROXIMATIONS FROM THE SKULL AND POST-MORTEMS, THESE STEPS STILL APPLY!
Forensic art is already a niche job, so trying to become a forensic artist who only does facial approximations will wildly narrow your chances of getting any forensic art job at all.
Most artists who do facial approximations 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 who have unidentified remains cases.
And, because they were a law enforcement employee, they were in the prime position to work these cases, giving them a massive, well-earned advantage over a person that is outside of law enforcement.