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The International Association for Identification (IAI) defines a forensic artist as a person who assists in criminal investigations and case presentations by “…performing a wide spectrum of art functions” such as producing composite images, image modifications and image identifications, facial reconstructions and post-mortem identification aids, and demonstrative evidence.

A forensic artist, also commonly referred to as a sketch artist, is a graphic artist that renders free hand or computerized drawings, enhancements, and reconstructions. These artists work closely with law enforcement officers to identify criminal suspects and victims through facial composite sketches. In the field, they may need to create drawings, scale diagrams, and models of crime scenes.

Types of Forensic Art

Identifies three, main disciplines of forensic art:

Composite Art

Composite art is a technique created by sketching an unknown individual using a number of individually described parts. Composite art produces a single, graphic image designed to be a likeness or similarity of the individual.

Image Modification/Age Progression

Image modification is alterations or enhancements of photographs or images used for updating, clarifying, and/or identifying an individual. Image modification or enhancement may include age progression and age regression.

Post-Mortem and Facial Reconstruction

Post-mortem and facial reconstruction are rebuilding the facial features of either decomposed or partially decomposed human remains. Post-mortem reconstruction usually involves the use of 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.

Forensic Facial Reconstruction

Also known as facial reproduction or facial approximation, this reconstruction is the process through which soft-tissue features are constructed onto a skull in order to approximate the appearance of an individual’s face in life.

degreeEducation

Typical educational requirements required for forensic artist jobs include an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in graphic art or design from an accredited college or university. During a typical curriculum in graphic arts, 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 skull with clay. In addition, technology allows the artist to load the scanned file on the computer and sculpt the face digitally.

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 just have an interest in art, you may wish to get a Bachelor’s degree in art. Whether or not you pursue a degree in art or not, you do need to take coursework in composite drawing. 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.

As part of their education, most forensic artists obtain certification from the IAI. The requirements are:

  • Applicants are required to receive 80 hours of IAI approved forensic art training programs.
  • The applicant requires a combination of 40 hours of related workshops, lectures, or short program training.
  • Applicants need a minimum of two years of experience as a forensic artist for an agency or multiple agencies.
  • A minimum of 30 forensic art cases that can include composites, reconstructions, and age progressions (other related case experience can be evaluated on an individual basis).
  • Applicant must submit a portfolio demonstrating his/her forensic art techniques and cases.

Another reason to have a degree in criminal justice or related field is that the work is not steady. Very few police forces employ a forensic artist. They are summoned on an as-needed basis. New York City, which has the largest police force in the country, has consistently staffed three full-time artists. The Los Angeles Police Department has two. There are detectives who combine their crime-solving skills with artistic talent.

Conclusion

Forensic art seems to be a fading art. It has its uses, though it has become less prevalent in crime investigation. Therefore, individuals with a penchant for sketching and a desire to work in law enforcement should choose the latter as a degree. You can always offer your artistic talents as an aside to your full-time law enforcement job. Your degree in criminal justice or forensic science will remain in demand. Not so with forensic art.

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