How does someone become a forensic artist?

In short, they must:

  1. Possess artistic skill.
  2. Join law enforcement.
  3. Do sketches when they aren’t chasing bad guys. 

Seriously, this is really and truly the way 95% of forensic artists got in the field. 

And….their full-time job isn’t as a forensic artist. They are “dual-duty” artists who do sketches in addition to their regular, full-time job in law enforcement (like police officer, dispatcher, evidence tech, etc). The exceptions to this are so rare, you will spend a lot of time, money, and frustration attempting to do it any other way.

But don’t give up, because that’s the whole reason I started this website. I’m here to help, and give you a detailed road map into securing a forensic art position. There’s no guarantees of course, because luck and timing play a role. But to quote one of my favorite movies: “Luck favors the prepared.”

How many forensic artists are there?

There are only about 30 full-time forensic artists in the United States. Yes, that’s right…thirty. And they are all law enforcement employees, usually working in state or federal agencies.

However, there are about 300 or more “dual-duty” forensic artists who work their regular job, then do the forensic art assignments as they are needed. They are also law enforcement employees (police officers, dispatchers, administrative techs, etc) and they do the bulk of the composite drawings and facial approximations you see online and on TV.

How much does a forensic artist earn?

Anywhere from $0 to $120,000 a year.

Trying to pin down a forensic artist’s salary is really tough, because most of the forensic artists are “dual-duty,” and don’t get paid extra for their work.  So, a patrol officer who does 30 composites a year could make $30,000, while a detective who averages 3 composites a year can make $80,000.

The full-time forensic artists who work in state agencies can start around $30,000 - $60,000, depending on their experience. Full-time artists in federal agencies with lots of experience start at about $60,000 and can go nicely over $100,000, depending on years of service. Of course, this means the competition for the federal jobs is fierce. To land a job with that kind of salary takes a Bachelor’s degree, solid drawing and sculpting skills, advanced computer graphics knowledge, the ability to hold a high security clearance, and more.

The artists who make $0 are either retired forensic artists who volunteer their time as a public service, or are freelancers trying to break in the field.

Can I freelance instead of joining law enforcement?

You can try. But you probably won’t get very far¹, stay very long², or make any money at it³.

1: Forensic artists are part of active, ongoing criminal investigations. They must follow certain protocols, maintain chain-of-custody (skulls and sketches are evidence), and be qualified to testify in court. A law enforcement employee is held accountable for all that; someone on the outside can’t be.

2: As soon as the agency finds a current employee with artistic skill (or buys a composite system) your days are numbered. It’s because of #1 above, and money.

3: Agencies are typically strapped for cash, with fixed budgets each fiscal year. If they haven’t budgeted in for composite sketches (and most don’t), they simply won’t be able to afford you. You can offer to do them for free, but imagine how it sounds if you call the police and say: “Hi, you don’t know me, but I’d like to do a drawing for the triple homicide you are investigating, for free.” That’s going to raise some eyebrows.

Yes, there are some successful freelance artists. They are usually retired law enforcement employees (they have the experience and trust of the agency); artists with ties to law enforcement (correctional employees, medical or emergency personnel); or artists with a advanced academic credentials (who usually focus on facial approximation).