Real Crime Blog

What Does It Take to be a Forensic Artist?

We’ve seen them on our favorite police TV shows, quickly sketching out a face that helps detectives I.D. a criminal or a victim in a decades-old cold case. According to forensic artist and sculptor Lisa Bailey hers is a field that requires intuition, empathy and communication skills in addition to artistic ability. To approximate how a victim of a horrific murder may have looked in life, she digitally “heals” broken bones, bullet wounds, and facial decomposition so approximate images of unknown victims can be publicly released. Bailey talked to Real Crime over email about what it takes to do her job, from reconstructing a lost person from just a skull to helping traumatized crime victims remember visual details.

Real Crime: Are forensic artists or police sketch artists actual law-enforcement employees? 
Lisa Bailey: Almost always the artists are law-enforcement (LE) employees; it’s pretty rare for an agency to call in someone from the outside. The police are working on an active, ongoing investigation. An agency can’t take the chance that a non-LE artist might be exposed to case information — especially something that hasn’t been released to the public. Also, the composite sketch itself is evidence, and there’s often an expectation that the artist may have to testify in court. Artists in LE have been trained for that and are accountable to follow agency rules and protocol.

Are the challenges different from those of a courtroom-sketch artist
I’ve never done any work as a courtroom artist and I doubt I’d have the chops for it anyway! But the biggest [challenge] is that when we do a composite, we’re not drawing something in front of us. All we really have to work with is the recall of the witness and our ability to conduct a good cognitive interview. We also need to keep any artistic license and expression out of it. Composites aren’t art; they’re a visual tool for law enforcement.

How has technology changed your work over the years? 
In the most amazing and beneficial ways possible, as far as I’m concerned. Photoshop makes it faster and easier for an artist to draw and make changes on a computer (compared to pencil and paper). Now, we can draw directly on the screen with the stylus. It only took a couple hours of practice, and soon I was turning around jobs in half the time.

Technology has especially benefited facial-approximation work. We have much more accurate tissue-depth data now, thanks to CT scans, which create cross-sectional images of the body using x-ray and computers. Prior tissue data from 1980 was gathered by sticking pins in cadavers! We also can see how eyes are really positioned in the orbit [socket], and what shape the flesh of the nose may take based on the skull. The most guidance artists had on this before was gathered over 60 years ago from dissecting one cadaver. Not exactly scientific.

Finally, there’s the 3D technology: We can scan a skull and create a perfect replica on a 3D printer to work from, so we’re never going near the actual skull with clay. Or we can load the scan file on the computer and sculpt the face digitally. Amazing.

What’s the hardest thing about working with crime victims who are trying to describe someone who attacked them?
For me personally, it’s the emotional part. Something horrible has just happened to this person, and there’s nothing I can say or do to change it. It’s hard for me to see people in so much pain.

Do you only sketch faces?
No, we have to be prepared to draw anything, like jewelry or tattoos, the clothes the person was wearing, or even the car they were driving. Sometimes if we’re in an interview room with internet access we can do a search and find what the witness is looking for, like a certain logo on a baseball cap. But if that’s not possible we have to be ready to draw it.

Do you ever have to re-create what an unknown crime victim must have looked like alive from either a corpse or skeletal remains?
Many times. I do a lot of sculpting, creating facial approximations from the skull. For me, it’s the most fascinating part of the field. You can have an unidentified-remains case that’s been cold 20 years, and then one image will catch someone’s attention and end up leading to an identification.

Facial approximations are sort of the last resort in identification, after DNA, dental or fingerprints haven’t matched a missing person. There are databases for that information of course, but it’s like there’s a lost puzzle piece if a person hasn’t been reported as missing.

So while we can never get an exact likeness of the person (hence the term ‘approximation’ versus ‘reconstruction’), it is possible to get enough of a resemblance for a family member or friend to recognize. The skull gives you a lot more information than you’d think, and no two are alike. That’s one part of why we all look different from each other; it starts with the skull.

Walk through the process of how you start with a witness.
The main thing we need to do when meeting the witness is just to establish some kind of connection, and build rapport. We don’t jump right in with questions. We need them to be comfortable with us, because we’re going to spend several hours sketching a face that they probably don’t want to think about.

Then we explain the overall process and let them know that they have complete control over the image, and that we can make changes and alterations at any time. Before we start sketching, we ask for a free recall on what they remember about the person. That gives us a general idea of where to start — for instance, that we’re going to sketch someone with a long face and close-set eyes, or a heavy-set person with long hair and tattoos.

After they’ve described a feature, we have them look at a set of faces with similar features so we can narrow it down — because one person’s idea of a long chin or thin nose can be completely different. Once we have enough information to start drawing, we do a rough sketch to see if we’re on the right track. Then they suggest as many changes as it needs, and this can go back and forth multiple times.

The drawing gets more finished and refined as we go on, until there’s nothing more they can suggest to change. We stop drawing when the witness is happy with the image. The best thing for an artist to hear is “Stop, that’s him!”

Is there some kind of special training? 
Yes, most artists take at least one week-long course in composite sketching before going out on a case. The most important thing artists should focus on is their cognitive interviewing skills, learning how to talk to a witness, and the procedures for creating a sketch.

Is this a job you’d encourage young people to go into? 
Yes, but with a caveat. Full-time jobs are almost nonexistent. But, there are about 300 or so “dual-duty” forensic artists in the U.S. — LE employees who work their regular job (as police officers, dispatchers, administrative techs, etc.), then do the forensic art assignments as needed. Of course, 300 is a ridiculously small number, and the field could definitely use more.

That’s actually why I started a website. I kept getting calls and emails from people who wanted to know how to become a forensic artist. They would tell me how frustrated they were, because they had taken several composite art classes, and really wanted to help people, but they had no idea how to get a job. I make it very clear that in order to have any chance at being a forensic artist, you need to join law enforcement — not necessarily as a police officer, but in some capacity. I also came up with a step-by-step outline of what a person needs to do, and in what order, to have a shot at this work. In short, this is one of those fields where you have to get a job first, then pursue forensic art after. People are surprised at that, but it’s just how it is.

What can a forensic artist expect to earn?
Trying to pin down a forensic artist’s salary is difficult, because most 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 three composites a year can make $80,000.

The full-time forensic artists who work in state or federal agencies average $30,000 to $60,000 and up. Artists with lots of experience in federal agencies can earn $70,000 to 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 nothing are either retired forensic artists who volunteer their time as a public service, or freelancers trying to break in the field.

A&E’s Real Crime gets closer to the people and the stories behind the crime headlines.

(Image: Courtesy of Lisa Bailey)

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