dead person bleeding from stabbing-forensic artist

IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain

What is a Forensic Artist?

The field of forensic artistry combines criminology with art using both technological and traditional mediums to create age progressions, composites of alleged criminals and victims, and the recreation of crime scenes. These professionals are also instrumental in post-mortem identification images, facial reconstructions, and demonstrative evidence.

This forensic science dates back to 1915 when Harry H. Caldwell of the Oakland California Police Department’s Bureau of Identification realized the need for a law enforcement identification organization. A group of about twenty-two men convened and consequently established the International Association for Criminal Identification in October 1915, with Inspector Caldwell as the presiding officer. By 1929, there were Regional Vice-Presidents in Canada, Mexico, Cuba, China, and the Philippines. In 1967, the International Association of Identification (IAI), as it was now known, became incorporated under the laws of the State of Delaware.

Currently, the IAI has three membership levels:

  • Active and Associate: $80 annually
  • Sustaining Active and Associate: $800 Life-time
  • Student: $45 annually

Student membership is available to full-time college enrollees at an accredited institution taking a forensic science or related major, such as law enforcement. Full-time study is twelve or more semester hours/credits or the equivalent in quarter hours/credits.

The IAI classifies forensic art as three primary disciplines:

Composite Art or Imagery:

Composite art is typically performed by a sketch or graphic artist who creates a person’s facial image based on a person’s verbal description. The artist draws the facial features of an unknown person based upon the input from a victim or witness to a crime.

Post-mortem or Facial Reconstruction:

Post-mortem images and 3D creations are necessary for facial reconstructions due to severe injuries to the victim’s face, such as fire, gunshot, or decomposition. Some of the recreations occur as a result of exhumation, after which the forensic artist may collaborate with forensic anthropologists or odontologists to establish realistic head reconstructions in these instances.

Post-mortem reconstruction usually involves using digital software that allows the forensic arts to create 3-D images; however, many forensic artists perform facial reconstruction using sketches or producing 3-D clay figures.

This reconstruction also involves the process through which soft-tissue features are constructed onto a skull to approximate the appearance of an individual’s face in life. For instance, when law enforcement discovers a partial skull.

Image Modification or Enhancement

Image modification is alterations or enhancements of photographs or images used for updating, clarifying, or identifying a person. One use of this aspect is the create a current likeness of a known person through age progression. For example, a missing child for several years can have their photo updated to represent the present age.

Forensic Artist Education

To gain the art component of the branch of science, you could enroll in an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in graphic art or design from an accredited college or university. During a typical graphic or visual arts curriculum, you will cover some of the technical features inherent in forensic art. Photoshop makes it faster and easier for an artist to draw and make changes on a computer (compared to pencil and paper). Now, you can draw directly on the screen with the stylus. There is also the use of 3D technology. The artist can scan a skull and create a perfect replica on a 3D printer. This method takes the place of creating the actual head with clay. In addition, technology allows the artist to load the scanned file on the computer and sculpt the face digitally.

However, most students opt for a degree in criminal justice as its coursework supplies the necessary knowledge demanded to work in law enforcement. Many of these programs are available online for working individuals. PennState World Campus, for example, has a 120-credits Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice. Samples of the courses are Policing in America, Courts and the Prosecution Process, Corrections, Victimology, Border Security, Criminal Law, and Police Administration. Degrees in this major provide a well-rounded foundation in the criminal justice system.

Walden University is another online institution that offers a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice to applicants twenty-one and over with no prior college credits. Students under twenty-one must have completed at least 12 quarter credits. The program has five concentrations:

  1. Advanced Topics in Criminal Justice – allows graduate courses to apply to a graduate degree in C.J.
  2. Corrections and Human Services – explores crime on society, economic influences, and drug use.
  3. Crime and Criminal Investigation – Learn how to collect evidence and interview witnesses.
  4. Criminal Justice Management and Administration – Study advanced classes in management techniques.
  5. Self-Designed – Mix any of the above four for a personalized curriculum.

The problem with the schools mentioned above and many others offering criminal justice is that they don’t teach forensic art.

This highly competitive field employs a small number. Unless you are fortunate enough to work as a forensic artist for the FBI, you may want to pursue a degree in law enforcement, criminal justice, or a related field of forensics.

Once you have started your criminal justice career, you can buckle down on forensic art. If you are already skilled at many types of art, you may not need an additional degree. However, if you are interested in art, you may wish to get a Bachelor’s Degree in art. Whether or not you pursue a degree in art, you need to take coursework in composite drawing. As stated above, composite drawing is sketching the image of a person you have never seen before based on the description provided by a witness or victim. There are often workshops or training seminars hosted by criminal justice agencies and continuing education providers.

A Bachelor of Arts is a consideration as it furnishes hands-on experience with animation, digital imaging, illustration, printing methods, and interactive design. Most of which are crucial to forensic art. Courses you will likely encounter in graphic arts are digital imagery, design technology, marketing, multimedia design in motion, page layout, UX (user experience) design, and vector illustration.

A Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting and Drawing should inspire individuals with an artistic flair. The program at Indiana University has courses in graphic design, ceramics, sculpture, figurative sculpture, drawing, painting, and anatomy. The knowledge gleaned from figurative sculpture and anatomy would benefit the forensic artist.

A Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science equips students with the fundamentals of organic chemistry, human anatomy, skeletal analysis, physics, DNA collection and testing, microbiology, and genetics. Valuable skills for the future forensic artist, but again, there are no courses related to forensic art.

The University of North Texas in Denton is one of 35 programs accredited by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (Colorado Springs). Despite this distinction, their program menu has a B.S. in Biochemistry, Biology, or Chemistry with a forensic science certificate.

As explained, forensic science deals with chemistry and biology; digital forensics focuses on the recovery of evidence on digital devices; forensic chemistry specializes in toxicology, DNA, drugs, and biochemical techniques; forensic accounting involves white-collar crime investigation; forensic psychology looks into the criminal mind; the list of specific areas in law enforcement continues. What’s missing? Forensic art! How does someone become a forensic artist if there are no college programs dedicated to it?

According to the IAI, most forensic artists have an associate or bachelor’s degree in fine art, criminal justice, or computer science with classes in 3D modeling. To satisfy these criteria, you could obtain an associate degree in graphic design and criminal justice. The typical two-year programs are available at community colleges – one of which may be situated near your residence.

portrait of man for forensic art

IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain

Graphic design teaches digital art skills for electronic media using software like Photoshop, InDesign, After Effects, and Illustrator. Programs that include drawing, typography drawing, layout design, and human form sketching could be applied to forensic art. Classes may have photography in the curriculum that would also be beneficial to crime scene investigations. The more skills, the better, as forensic art is not always in demand on police forces.

The second part of your education is an associate degree in criminal justice or law enforcement online or at a local community or junior college. Rasmussen University has eight campuses in Minnesota, or students can earn online by enrolling in either an associate or bachelor’s degree in law enforcement or criminal justice. For one-stop shopping, the school also has an associate degree in graphic design! Students can complete any of these associate’s programs within eighteen months.

Another online institution is Purdue University Global that has an Associate of Applied Science in Criminal Justice with ten-week terms requiring fifteen study hours per week. Courses include Criminal Investigation, Criminal Procedure, International and Domestic Terrorism, Counterterrorism, and the Criminal Justice System. Graduates of the 90-credit program will qualify for corporate security, loss prevention, private investigations, public safety, and law enforcement jobs. Tuition is $371 per credit.

As part of their education, most forensic artists obtain certification from the Forensic Certification Management Board (FCMB) of the IAI. There are six certifications in the field of forensics:

  • Footwear – expert analysis of footwear impressions
  • Forensic Art – proficient in drawing, digital imagery, and sculpting
  • Forensic Photography & Imaging – expertise in obtaining crime scene photos and other photographic evidence
  • Forensic Video Analysis – collection and preservation of multimedia evidence
  • Latent Prints – knowledge in the scientific concepts of skin friction, recovery, photography, protection, analysis, documentation, and comparison of fingerprints
  • Tenprint – field experience in friction ridge impressions’ comparison
  • Bloodstain Pattern Analysis – how blood reacts exiting the body
  • Crime Scene – candidates are either: Certified Crime Scene Investigator, Certified Crime Scene Analyst, or Certified Senior Crime Scene Analyst.

Forensic art certification stipulates knowledge of facial anatomy, interviewing techniques, ancestral differences, age progression tendencies, post-mortem reconstruction, skull photographing, and testimony protocols. Each certificate has its specific experience and test requirements. Various abilities are listed, for example:

  • Draw an anatomically correct human head
  • Draw a human head with proper proportions
  • Draw a likeness of a person

Initial testing for the Forensic Art Certification includes a written examination consisting of 100 multiple choice questions, with 75% being a passing grade. A Practical Exam requires three graded drawings – 75% to pass. Plus a third drawing exam of three more drawings. The fourth and final part is the submission of ten case drawings and images from a portfolio. A short narrative must accompany the portfolio explaining how the forensic image(s) assisted in the apprehension of an alleged perpetrator or person’s identification.

Certification will undoubtedly boost your reputation and add credentials to a resume. However, you need at least five years of work experience with at least 50% of your duties directly associated with the respective certificate before pursuing one. The IAI-FCMB regulations also necessitate submitting two letters of endorsement and two reference letters with your application. References must be colleagues or superiors who can attest to your work experience, qualifications, and performance. Recertification takes place every five years.

Forensic Art as a Career

Individuals considering a career in forensic art need artistic talent. If your drawing capabilities are limited to stick figures, then you shouldn’t pursue this field. Another negative is the fact that the software, for example, Illustrator, you should know how to use is the reason forensic artists are not in demand. Computers can create images instead of humans. This branch of law enforcement might not be obsolete, but you should expand your scope of expertise into other areas addressed in the certifications. Crime scene photography requires a human to precisely document an accident or crime scene.

Another reason to have a degree in criminal justice or a related field is that forensic art is not steady. Very few police forces employ a forensic artist; police departments summon artists on an as-needed basis. Some combine investigative police work with their forensic art talent, such as Stephen Mancusi, a New York City Police Department detective. He has also been a renowned forensic artist since 1984. As Chairman of the IAI, he was instrumental in creating the forensic art certification as referenced above. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has displayed his art projects.

SalaryExpert reports the average salary for forensic artists at $54,944 based on submitted numbers on surveys. Artists with eight years or more of work experience might garner $67,186 annual income, compared to the median pay for Police and Detectives at $67,290 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020 data); this occupation seems the better choice, not just financially, but from job security and opportunities for advancement. And no degree is needed for police recruits.

Related Resources:

What Degree Do I Need to Be a Crime Analyst?

Highest Paying Degrees in Criminal Justice – Majors & Careers

Top 10 Graduate Degree Programs in Criminal Justice

For Further reading: 

Highest Paying Bachelor’s Degrees — Majors & Careers

How Much Can I Make With a Degree in Digital Marketing?