What Does It Take to Be a Police and Forensic Sketch Artist?

Is a career as a forensic artist right for you?

Forensic artist sketching face

Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Contributor/Getty Images

Are you looking for a rewarding career that makes good use of your drawing ability? A career as a forensic artist may be a good option. It allows you to work with law enforcement agencies to creates sketches of suspects and crime scenes to help officers solve crimes.

The work of a forensic artist is varied and there's even some room for sculptors. You must have the right skills and be able to observe, listen, and imagine the details that might be left out. It's certainly worth looking into, so let's take a brief look at the career of a forensic sketch artist.

What Does a Sketch Artist Do?

A forensic sketch artist interviews witnesses and victims of crime. They gather information about the appearance of a suspect and draw a sketch to match that description. Computers are sometimes used to help construct pictures. 

Sketching suspects is not the only task a forensic artist may do. They might also be asked to do or have specialized skills in one of the following:

  • Sketch or use computer graphics to generate images of missing people to show how they may have aged.
  • Sketch a reconstruction of a crime scene from forensic information.
  • A sculpture artist may reconstruct faces to help identify skeletal remains.

What Are the Hours and Wages Like?

Hours and wages vary greatly. Very few sketch artists may be full-time members of a police force and will be paid accordingly, with appropriate benefits.

More typical is part-time or freelance work as an independent contractor. Usually, this involves working with several law enforcement agencies and this may require some traveling. These artists may also work on other freelance illustration projects and artwork to supplement their income.

What Training Does a Forensic Artist Need?

Requirements vary, so contact the personnel department of the agency you wish to work for before going further.

Qualifications range from a high school certificate to a university degree in criminal justice, along with the law enforcement agency's own training. Formal art training is usually required and some agencies offer specialized forensic art courses.

How Well Do I Need to Draw?

You need to be able to draw a detailed and accurate portrait or scene from your imagination using the details you're given. This skill is based on hours of drawing from life—practice with people's faces of all profiles, for instance.

For the drawing of crime scenes, as a forensic artist, you will need to be able to draw using correct perspective, accurately render three-dimensional objects, and use your imagination to reconstruct scenes.

Quite often you will be given limited information, but you must be able to accurately place that information. Keen skills in observing life—the people, places, and things all around us—is crucial to a forensic artist's work because this is useful when reconstructing the unknown.

What Other Skills Do I Need?

"People skills" are essential for forensic sketch artists. You will need to interview distressed, upset, or uncooperative victims or witnesses, sensitively asking the right questions and interpreting answers. Also, police investigation involves teamwork.

  • Some computer skills are also useful, as are 3D modeling skills for reconstructive modeling.
  • A driver's license and some experience in photography are useful, as are any second languages.
  • For reconstructive forensics and crime scene work, a strong stomach may be needed.

Is There a Professional Organization?

The Forensic Art Certification Board of the International Association of Identification has established certification standards for Forensic Artists.