Criminal Sketch Artist: Job Description, Duties and Requirements
Most criminal sketch artists, commonly called forensic artists, already have another law enforcement job, and full-time positions are uncommon. Drawing and interviewing techniques can be developed through a variety of training options. Certification is available for practicing forensic artists.
Criminal sketch artists aid law enforcement by using witness descriptions to create a likeness of suspects and missing persons. Full-time and freelance positions are rare, and most criminal sketch artists start out in another law enforcement agency position. Most individuals keep their current careers and perform their forensic artist duties within their agencies as needed. In addition to composite sketching, forensic artists may specialize in facial reconstruction and age progression.
Criminal sketch artists focus on facial features as they interview informants, asking them to choose from examples of noses, eyes, mouths, foreheads and chins. Unlike portrait artists, criminal sketch artists don't always have the benefit of working from a picture or a live model. Instead, they have to compile a variety of features that are often described orally. This process can involve considerable trial and error as they update their work to correspond to eyewitness reports.
Sketching is mostly done by hand, but forensic artists specializing in age progression may use computer graphic programs. Criminal sketch artists will have to work with limited and sometimes conflicting information to sketch the best possible match. Sometimes a witness only catches a partial glimpse of a suspect, so criminal sketch artists must ask the right questions and listen patiently.
No set route exists to becoming a criminal sketch artist, but formal training is recommended. An associate's or bachelor's degree in life drawing can be beneficial but is not required. Many aspiring criminal sketch artists hone their skills through workshops, artists' school courses and agency-sponsored training programs.
Experienced sketch artists typically teach workshops and artists' school courses, and agency-sponsored training courses are only available to individuals associated with a law enforcement agency. Training routes take an interactive approach and focus on facial structure, case studies, interviewing strategies, front and profile views and drawing techniques with respect to age, race and gender.
While some natural drawing talent is required, interviewing skills are just as important for obtaining reliable information. Criminal sketch artists will find a background in psychology useful, especially when dealing with confused or upset witnesses.
Practicing criminal sketch artists can seek forensic art certification through the International Association for Identification (IAI), an organization accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (www.thefsab.org). To obtain IAI certification, qualified candidates must have two years of criminal sketching experience, be endorsed by a law enforcement agency, submit a professional portfolio and pass a written exam (www.theiai.org).
Employment Outlook and Salary Information
In 2012, fine artists, including illustrators and sketch artists, earned an annual median salary of $44,850, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In 2010, the BLS predicted slower than average employment growth of 8% for these artists, through 2020. Those sketch artists who work full time in law enforcement may find their salaries and job outlook more in line with the agencies with which they're employed.
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