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 skill 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.
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 an expert 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 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.
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 7 percent, as fast as the national average for all other occupations, and predicts that 51,700 new positions will be needed between 2020 and 2030 (BLS 2021).
Specific data for forensic sketch artists is unavailable, but the BLS estimates that demand will create 7,000 new openings for craft and fine artists from 2020 to 2030 (BLS 2021). In fact, the occupational market for craft and fine artists is twice as fast as the national average at 14 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 locations where work is performed.
The BLS calculates the average annual salary for a craft and fine artist to be $49,960 or $24.02 per hour (BLS May 2021), while the average annual salary for a police officer or detective is $66,020 or $31.74 per hour (BLS May 2021).
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 (2022), 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:
Salaries for fine artists vary widely depending on where 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 $50,825 per year (PayScale 2022):
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.
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.
Utica College offers an online bachelor of science in criminal justice. The 120-credit undergraduate program allows students to choose from six specializations, including a general track which allows students to choose four elective courses to suit their professional goals.
The criminal justice minor program requires 15 credits to complete. It is designed for noncriminal justice majors interested in multidisciplinary careers such as social work, psychology, law, and government. This program is recognized by the International Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysts (IALEIA) and prepares graduates to sit for the CipherTrace Certified Examiner (CTCE) exam.
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.
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.
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. The cost of the course is $250 and includes all supplies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).