What Do Forensic Artists Do?



COMPOSITES are the type of forensic art that you are probably the most familiar with: sketches of suspects that are produced by interviewing a victim or witness of a crime.

Because we’re working from someone’s memory, it’s nearly impossible to get a perfect likeness. But just like horseshoes and hand grenades, “close” counts in a composite drawing. If we can get a general resemblance to what the person looked like, that can be enough to narrow down the list of suspects, and hopefully to one person in particular.

. A composite has done its job if it figuratively taps someone on the shoulder and says “you might need to pay attention to this.” 

FACIAL APPROXIMATIONS are drawings and sculptures created from an unidentified human skull. By the time a skull makes it to a forensic artist, years have usually passed, and all other means of identification have been exhausted.

DNA, fingerprints, and dental records work, but only if a Missing Persons report has been filed with those samples. Otherwise there’s nothing for the database to match against, like a puzzle with a missing piece.

This is why a facial approximation can literally be the last chance that person has to be identified. All we need is for someone to see that image, and have enough spark of recognition for them to call in a lead to police.

Which means it can also be the last chance for that person’s killer to be identified, since the investigator can’t begin to find out who the murderer is until they know the name of the victim.

3D facial approximations are generally sculpted in clay over a replica of the skull. Years ago the artist would have applied clay over the actual skull, but now we have technology at our disposal that allows us to use an exact physical copy instead. This is the best possible option, because we’re preserving the skull as evidence. The last thing we want to do is accidentally crush a fragile bone with the pressure of sculpting.

Computer modeling systems exist, but they’ve misled people into thinking that a computer is automatically generating the face. Not at all. The process is still 100% artist-driven; the artist is just working with virtual clay to sculpt the face on the computer. 

POST-MORTEMS are drawings or retouched images of unidentified people from morgue photos. Dead people do not look like they are sleeping. Our job is to do the forensic version of what mortuary specialists do. We digitally heal the broken bones, bullet wounds, and decomposition on the faces of the dead so they can be released to the public.

This takes much more than just knowing how to draw. Forensic artists use their knowledge of facial anatomy and post-mortem changes to do this work successfully. The responsibility is the same with facial approximations; until the investigator knows the name of the victim, the chances of finding their killer are virtually nonexistent. 

AGE PROGRESSIONS of adults are pretty much what they sound like: “He’s been gone for 15 years, so take this photo and make him look like he’s 50 years old.” These are done in cases of endangered missing adults as well as fugitives, all in the hopes of generating renewed public interest and fresh leads for investigators.

Forensic artists don’t have any special gifts or psychic ability to predict what someone will look like in the future. What we do have is in-depth knowledge of facial anatomy, we’ve studied aging patterns of the face, and we have the artistic ability to illustrate those changes. Barring any new specific information about a person’s appearance, it comes down to educated guesswork.  It’s sort of like the cliché in any time travel movie: what we produce is a vision of one possible future. Any number of things along the way can change the outcome.

So why bother with an age progression in the first place? Because it can provide a fresh look to a case that people, and the media, have long forgotten. Which is exactly what the investigator is after.

AGE PROGRESSIONS of children are done by the artists at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). Because the aging process for adults is vastly different than that of children, the method for producing an age-progressed image of a child is different as well. Instead of lifestyle changes, artists must depict the proportional changes of a child’s growth. This requires specialized knowledge, and ideally, specific input from the missing child’s parents and siblings. Because many cases of child abductions are a result of custody disputes this input isn’t always available, but continually updated images of the missing child are a way to keep the case in the public’s eye.

IMAGE MODIFICATIONS involve changing an image in some way, other than age. For instance, it’s in a fugitive’s best interest to conceal their identity, so artists will often get requests to change the hair color in a photo, or digitally add or remove a beard. These are done when the investigator has new information at her disposal, no matter how long or short a time the fugitive has been on the run.

DEMONSTRATIVE EVIDENCE are the trial charts, interactive displays, and crime scene diagrams used in court to describe and illustrate a case to a jury. A picture is certainly worth a thousand words, and the best case can fail altogether if the jury doesn’t understand it. Forensic artists will use anything from a high-tech 3D room scanners, to a tape measure and sketch pad to get the job done. 

Usually when people talk about wanting to be a forensic artist, they aren’t talking about Demonstrative Evidence; they want to get their hands on a skull or produce composite sketches.