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Forensic Sketch Artist Career Outlook, Salary, and Requirements

Forensic sketch artists serve and protect with paper and pens. While it’s true that high-tech digital instruments sharpen the accuracy and validity of witness testimonies, paper and pencil facial sketches still play a significant role in criminal investigations.

Forensic sketch artists, also known as composite artists, use their knowledge of facial anatomy and artistic skills to create images of potential criminals and missing persons. By interviewing victims or witnesses of a crime scene, forensic artists create sketch drawings used by police and released to the public to identify and apprehend criminal suspects. Forensic sketch artists have multi-faceted careers that require them to think critically, ask probing questions, take verbal information, and express it in artistic mediums.

Forensic sketch artists typically work as members of a law enforcement team or are employed as freelancers. Most have a bachelor’s degree in fine art, criminal justice, or computer science specializing in 3D modeling. The International Association for Identification (IAI), the world’s oldest and largest forensic association, defines three main disciplines in forensic art: composite art or imagery, postmortem or facial reconstruction, and image modification and enhancement.

  • Composite artistic imagery requires forensic artists to ask questions and create sketches of victims or suspects using paper and pencil sketches.
  • Post-mortem rendering or facial reconstruction involves rendering faces using computer software, paper, and pencil, or sculpting clay from viewing photographs or actual skeletal remains.
  • Image modification and enhancement are used by forensic artists to create age-processed images that can help families and law enforcement locate missing people. These three artistic specializations are effective for law enforcement in bringing justice and closure to victims’ families.

Due to the emotionally taxing nature of this career, forensic sketch artists need to be patient and strategic communicators. Empathetic skills are essential when interviewing traumatized victims, and the ability to ask strategic questions when dealing with an uncooperative witness is equally crucial.

Melissa R. Cooper, a California-based freelance forensic artist, describes the multidisciplinary skills required for her career:

As a Forensic Artist, my renderings are done by unifying the two most dominant elements in our arsenal: Art and Science. The sources of my illustrations are often the product of someone else’s memories combined with the science of how we anatomically evolve throughout life – and sometimes further – how we devolve after death. As an expert Forensic Artist, I embed images from others’ memories onto a piece of paper to provide investigators with leads towards solving a case. My renditions continue to serve Law Enforcement Agencies, Educational Institutions, Law Firms, Scientific Research, Production Companies, and whomever else is in need of my services.

Read on to learn about the career outlook, salary, requirements, and steps to take to become a forensic sketch artist.

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Career Outlook and Salary Data For Forensic Sketch Artists

As previously mentioned, forensic sketch artists are either trained law enforcement professionals, freelance artists, or both. Therefore, the career outlook for forensic sketch artists depends on individuals’ educational and professional backgrounds.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that police and detectives are growing at a rate of 3 percent, as fast as the national average for all other occupations, and predicts that 23,800 new positions will be needed between 2022 and 2032 (BLS 2024).

Specific data for forensic sketch artists is unavailable, but the BLS estimates that demand will create 2,400 new openings for craft and fine artists from 2022 to 2032 (BLS 2023). In fact, the occupational market for craft and fine artists is slightly higher than the national average at 4 percent. In addition, many forensic sketch artists are self-employed, meaning the demand could be higher than is reflected in the BLS occupational profiles.

Due to the numerous career pathways to train for this career, the average annual salary for a forensic sketch artist varies widely. Salaries depend on factors such as education, experience, years of employment, and work locations.

The BLS calculates the median annual salary for a craft and fine artist to be $53,140 or $25.55 per hour (BLS 2024), while the median annual salary for a police officer or detective is $69,160 or $33.25 per hour (BLS 2024).

Professionals who hold associate or bachelor’s degrees statistically earn higher salaries than professionals with a high school diploma. Therefore, certification or proof of continuing education courses can help people leverage higher salaries when applying for jobs or promotions in law enforcement. Freelance artists calculate their pay rates based on their educational backgrounds, previous work experience, and professional training.

PayScale (2024), a self-reported aggregator of occupational data, illustrates the connection between years of experience and hourly wages for fine artists (including painters, sculptors, and illustrators) as follows:

  • Entry-level (less than one year): $15.61 per hour
  • Early career (1-4 years): $20.44
  • Mid-career (5-9 years): $24.80
  • Experienced (10-19 years): $25.46
  • Late-career (20 or more years): $35.31

Salaries for fine artists vary widely depending on where the work is performed. Here is a list of the top and lowest-paying cities for fine artists as compared to the national average salary of $55,590 per year (PayScale 2024):

  • Atlanta, GA: 107.5 percent higher than the national average
  • San Diego, CA: 54 percent higher
  • San Francisco, CA: 27 percent higher
  • Minneapolis, MN: 16 percent higher
  • Los Angeles, CA: 7 percent higher
  • Cincinnati, OH: 44 percent below the national average
  • Dallas, TX: 37 percent below
  • Denver, CO: 16 percent below

How To Become a Forensic Sketch Artist

Step One: Graduate from High School (Four Years)

High school students aspiring to become forensic sketch artists are encouraged to take as many courses as possible in art, anatomy, and physiology. Additional courses to support a future artistic career in law enforcement are civics, computer science, and graphic design.

Knowing a second language could be advantageous for questioning witnesses, victims, or family members whose primary language isn’t English. In addition, partaking in arts or athletics extracurricular activities can teach essential communication and teamwork skills. Finally, students are advised to keep their grades up to gain admission into a reputable and regionally or nationally accredited college or university program.

Step Two: Enroll in an Undergraduate or Professional Training Program (One Year or More)

Future forensic sketch artists are encouraged to pursue a two-year associate degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or fine art. An additional associate degree or a fine arts major with a minor in criminal justice, anatomy, anthropology, or computer science is recommended to learn as much as possible about this multidisciplinary field.

If available, the IAI educational program requirements recommend forensics art courses emphasizing composite drawings, age-progressed imagery, post-mortem imagery, and forensic facial imaging and anthropology.

American InterContinental University

American InterContinental University offers an online bachelor of science program in criminal justice with a specialization in forensic science that provides a balanced education in law enforcement practices, investigation methodologies, and science. Students in this program explore how investigations are conducted, how investigators solve crimes, the accepted theories of justice and crime, and common criminal procedures.

This 180-credit program includes courses such as introduction to criminology; introduction to criminal law; foundations of corrections; crime victim studies; juvenile justice & delinquency theory; criminalistics; criminal investigation; and medicolegal death investigation.

Notably, the criminalistics II course is designed to introduce non-scientific students to the forensic science field through an exploration of its applications to criminal investigations, and clear explanations of the abilities, limitations, and techniques of the modern crime laboratory. Students in this course will document a crime scene by means of scene sketching, photography, and notes.

  • Location: Houston, TX; Atlanta, GA
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years

New York Police Department (NYPD)

Forensic artists interested in police officer training should seek state or municipal training programs. An example of a police academy training program is the New York Police Department (NYPD). Located in Queens, NY, this 750,000-square-foot facility gives didactic instruction and hands-on scenario-based training in mock environment training rooms to prepare future law enforcement professionals for police and detective work in emergency response and investigation.

  • Location: Queens, NY
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Unknown

Step Three: Enroll in a Forensic Artist Course or Training Program (Timeline Varies)

Many forensic sketch artists pursue courses or training programs to learn specific forensic artist techniques. These courses are typically approved by the International Association for Identification (IAI) or taught by seasoned forensic artist professionals.

To meet the rigorous IAI requirements for certification, forensic art programs must include a minimum of 40 hours, taught by an IAI-certified instructor, and include curriculum in one of the three forensic categories: composite art and imaging, age progression, or facial recognition.

Forensic artist workshops taught by experienced professionals are a commonly sought-after training option. Such courses can be government-sponsored programs or courses offered by established forensic artists.

Forensic Art Essentials by Lois Gibson

An example of a course offered by an established forensic artist is the forensic art essentials class offered by Lois Gibson—a professional sketch artist who has worked for the Houston Police Department for 35 years. In addition to holding the title of the most successful forensic artist in the Guinness Book of World Records, she has appeared in numerous media outlets and TB true-crime television segments.

Her course, “Forensic Art Essentials,” provides beginning and seasoned forensic artists with what they need to get started in the profession and techniques to increase their effectiveness.

  • Location: Houston, TX
  • Accreditation: Unknown
  • Expected Time to Completion: Five days

SketchCop® Academy

SketchCop Academy offers specialized forensic art and forensic facial imaging training courses for both traditional artists and those seeking to transition into a digital medium.

Experienced forensic artists are encouraged to attend this training as an opportunity to enhance their skills. True crime enthusiasts curious about how this fascinating forensic discipline works are also welcome to attend.

This academy also serves as the training platform for SketchCop®’s signature course – Creating Digital Faces for Law Enforcement. This course is designed for those using the academy’s SketchCop® Facial Composite System software app.

Other courses are multi-faceted and designed for those entering the field of law enforcement or forensics. They are developed and taught by world-renowned Forensic Facial Imaging Expert and Certified Forensic Artist Michael W. Streed.

  • Location: Corona, CA
  • Accreditation: Unknown
  • Expected Time to Completion: Varies

Stuart Parks Forensic Associates

Another forensic art course is taught by Stuart Parks Forensic Associates, which includes 40 hours of instruction in a one-week format. Participants can immediately start drawing composite images for their law enforcement agencies. In addition, advanced courses in drawing, facial comparisons and identification, and black-and-white sketching are available.

  • Location: Rotating workshops in cities in the US and Canada
  • Accreditation: Unknown
  • Expected Time to Completion: One week

Step Four: Build a Law Enforcement Clientele Base (Ongoing)

Forensic sketch artists employed as police officers are encouraged to communicate their desires to contribute their unique services to leadership and human resources. It is possible that they could begin sketching right away or perhaps have the chance to fulfill this role when another sketch artist resigns or retires from the local police force.

Freelance artists with forensic sketching skills are encouraged to build their professional networks and contact as many nearby law enforcement agencies and legal professionals as possible to increase their clientele base.

Step Five: Gain Experience and Professional Development

Forensic sketch artists are encouraged to practice their craft whenever possible and stay current with professional development opportunities, workshops, and lectures by leading professional forensic artists.

Gil Zamora, a forensic sketch artist based out of San Jose, California, who is famous for his role in the Dove Real Beauty Sketch video series, has trademarked an interview technique called Compositure, which utilizes cognitive psychology to recreate a sketch from an eye-witness’s memory rather than traditional memory recall techniques. He gives talks on forensic sketching interview techniques and is currently writing a book about what he’s learned in his 17-year career as a police artist.

Forensic Sketch Artist Tasks And Responsibilities

The multidisciplinary nature of forensic sketch artist careers means that individuals engaged in this work should be ready to solve problems using skills from various fields, from art to science. Here is a list of typical tasks and responsibilities a forensic sketch artist requires.

  • Applying knowledge of facial anatomy in sketching or recreating images of faces of suspected criminals or crime victims
  • Investigating human teeth for abnormalities and structure (odontology)
  • Using knowledge of the function and structure of human bones to draw (osteology)
  • Creating composite images and age-progressed images of suspects or potential crime victims with digital imaging software
  • Interviewing crime suspects, witnesses, and crime victims in a variety of states ranging from emotional duress to non-cooperation, to create an accurate sketch
  • Designing simplified and appropriately detailed visual aids for courtroom testimonies
  • Providing courtroom testimonies in criminal trials

Forensic Sketch Artist Certification

Certification for forensic sketch artists is not required for most positions, but having it may increase an applicant’s chances of gaining employment.

Forensic artist certification is available through the International Association for Identification (IAI) and encourages applicants to have solid fundamental knowledge in composite imaging, facial reconstruction, and age or image enhancement.

In addition to extensive documented educational and work experience requirements with one or multiple agencies, forensic artists seeking certification must also submit a portfolio of forensic artistry with ten forensic art images prepared for law enforcement investigations cases and complete a written exam with a score of 80 percent or higher. Applicants who fail the test must wait six months from the rejection date to reapply and pay the certification fees. Recertification is possible after five years.

Educational requirements for IAI forensic art training programs are outlined, and educators who want to have their programs affiliated with IAI must submit their forensic art training program curriculum to the forensic art certification board for review.


Rachel Drummond, MEd

Rachel Drummond has given her writing expertise to since 2019, where she provides a unique perspective on the intersection of education, mindfulness, and the forensic sciences. Her work encourages those in the field to consider the role of mental and physical well-being in their professional success.

Rachel is a writer, educator, and coach from Oregon. She has a master’s degree in education (MEd) and has over 15 years of experience teaching English, public speaking, and mindfulness to international audiences in the United States, Japan, and Spain. She writes about the mind-body benefits of contemplative movement practices like yoga on her blog, inviting people to prioritize their unique version of well-being and empowering everyone to live healthier and more balanced lives.