Forensic Artists: Education Requirements and Job Description

Forensic artists, sometimes known as sketch artists, work with law enforcement to solve criminal cases. Using their artistic skills, they create images of subjects' faces based on indirect data such as verbal clues gained in interviews. The product of their work is primarily facial reconstruction, but also includes composite imaging and age enhancement.

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Education Requirements

While there is no specific industry standard in this field, some formal training in art is a must. Well-developed skills in drawing in particular are an asset for the hopeful forensic artist. A professional certification is available and can only improve job prospects for an aspiring forensic artist.

Associate of Arts in Drawing

An associate degree in drawing is a 2-year program that offers basic instruction in visual media. Found at many community colleges and some 4-year universities, these degrees provide graduates with the fundamental drawing skills that are vital to successful forensic artistry. Students who enroll in programs like this can expect to take courses such as:

  • Introduction to art history
  • Creative processes
  • Drawing and composition
  • Figure drawing with models
  • Sketching
  • Painting

Bachelor of Fine Arts

More commonly, students who seek formal training in art will enroll in a 4-year baccalaureate degree program that awards a Bachelor in Fine Arts (BFA) degree. Aside from the basic general education classes that are common to 4-year liberal arts programs, a BFA program heavily emphasizes studio instruction. Students can major in drawing in some programs. Common classes for a drawing major in a BFA program would be:

  • Design fundamentals
  • Art history
  • Advanced life drawing
  • Advanced drawing and painting
  • Sculpting
  • Illustration and animation

Certification in Forensic Artistry

The International Association of Identification (IAI) offers a professional certification in forensic artistry. Applicants must demonstrate two years of professional experience and provide a portfolio of at least 15 portraits used in actual investigations. Once qualified, applicants may sit for a written exam. This credential is renewable every five years; renewal applicants must show proof of 50 hours of continuing education since their last certification was granted.

Job Description

Forensic artistry begins with interviews, and effective interviewing and listening skills are a must. Using cognitive interviewing techniques, the artist works with witnesses to gather clues to the actual likeness of a suspect. Witnesses may be traumatized or have ulterior motives and the artist must be aware of these possibilities and filter the information accordingly. Other than interviews, partial views such as from surveillance video and photographs may provide some clue to the entire face of the subject.

Once all the clues have been gathered, the forensic artist uses drawing and shading techniques to form a likeness of the subject that law enforcement can use to solve the case. Both front and side views may be drawn. Some forensic artists specialize in age progression, which is used to attempt to locate subjects (often children) who have not been seen in a long time. Using an old photograph, the finished product is drawn to reflect the effect of time on facial features.

Salary and Employment Outlook Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn't have salary or job growth data for sketch artists; however, it does provide this information for the broader category of fine artists, which includes illustrators, along with painters and sculptors. Fine artists might see employment growth of four percent between 2012 and 2022, the BLS predicted. In May 2013, the BLS reported that the median salary for fine artists was $42,610.

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