Police artists give suspected criminals faces. 

Police sketch artists, or forensic composite artists, use their artistic skills to create images of potential suspects based on verbal descriptions from witnesses. Sometimes they can construct identifying features for a victim based on the remains or show how a missing person may look at a different age. The primary goal of a sketch artist is to give a face to the unknown so that identifying characteristics can be more easily visualized by those investigating.

Police artist work may include...

  • Conducting interviews and drawing from description
  • Creating digital imagery based on evidence
  • Viewing remains and making a 2D or 3D image based on them
  • Enhancing an image for clarity
  • Using facial mapping software to compare features

A sketch artist's primary focus is portraiture, so it's important to have a firm grasp on facial features and cranial anatomy, as well as a realistic style and an informed technique. Since facial reconstruction technology has become more common, sketch artists can make their images digitally or by hand, depending on what the situation calls for. Sometimes a situation will call for a full body composite sketch, so an artist must be prepared to draw from the neck down as well if required. Increasingly, the work police artists do is digital, but some situations still call for hand drawn sketches.

There are three main branches of forensic art: Composite imagery, Facial Reconstruction, and Image Modification. Composite imagery, like the name implies, is the process of combining many individual scraps of information into one cohesive graphic image. The main purpose of a composite image is to be recognized so that a suspect can be determined and an arrest can be made. Facial reconstruction involves recreating damaged, decomposed, or otherwise unidentifiable human faces and typically occurs postmortem, or after the subject of the reconstruction has died. Sometimes a postmortem drawing of an unknown person will be used to help identify the body. Image modification or enhancement is used to make a subject possible to identify and can involve aging, depixelating, or even changing identifying characteristics in the case of suspected cosmetic or surgical intervention. All of these disciplines align in the pursuit of identification.

This is one of the only fields in law enforcement that requires a fine arts background. An aspiring police artist will need a portfolio focused on facial portraits; there is a certification program in Forensic Art that will review this portfolio. If the artist has shown technical skill and artistic ability, they will be approved and move onto a written test with a practical component. Even after becoming certified, there is a lot to learn, and artists who want to expand their work into other parts of the field can get recertified in additional disciplines. Most police artists work freelance or part time, and it's not unusual for a single artist to work with more than one city's police department.

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