Composite Sketches

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Composite Sketches

Hijacker, Unknown

Sketches Bring Tips

A Job Without Glory

Becoming a Forensic Artist

Interviewing a Witness

Working Quickly

Sketch Pads to Touch Pads

Making the Sketch

Hair, Metal, and Ink

Dressing the Perpetrator

The only thing more frustrating for police departments than an unsolved crime is an unsolved crime with no leads. Sometimes, the only evidence is the memory of a witness. What the witness says about what happened and who they saw can be an investigator’s only clues for tracking down the criminal. Putting the details of a suspect’s appearance on paper quickly, before the witness begins to forget them, is often the key to solving a case.

Working with witnesses, however, can be a challenge for forensic artists, since those who have seen a crime are often confused and emotional. A witness might be an innocent observer—one who did not even realize that a crime was committed—or a witness may know all too well what happened during the crime because he or she was the victim of it. Witnesses might be in shock over what happened to them or because a loved one or a friend was injured or killed during the crime. The forensic artist might even be visiting the witness in a hospital bed during his or her recovery from the incident.

Sometimes, a witness wants to forget that the crime ever happened. Criminal acts can be violent and disturbing, potentially causing emotional trauma even for an uninvolved eyewitness. If the witness was the victim of the crime, such as a mugging or a rape, the memory is likely to be even more disturbing, and the very last thing the witness may want to do is recall details about the frightening perpetrator. The details witnesses do remember also may be clouded by the confusion and stress they likely felt as they experienced or witnessed the event.

To do their work, forensic artists need patience and experience working with people who have been traumatized.

Hijacker, Unknown

In 1971 a man hijacked a 747 airliner over Washington State, demanded $200,000, and parachuted out of the plane in the dark, taking the money with him. It was the last anyone saw of the mysterious man wearing sunglasses and a dark business suit.

The passenger boarded the plane under the name D.B. Cooper. It is a name people have never forgotten. Investigators and treasure seekers alike have scoured the wet forests of the Pacific Northwest for decades, looking for signs of the man and the money.

Soon after the crime, an FBI agent interviewed two flight attendants and created a composite sketch. That drawing was about all investigators had to go on.

Hundreds of people have come forward over the years claiming to know (or to be) the mysterious face in the composite sketch. In 1995 a man named Duane Weber even confessed on his deathbed to being D.B. Cooper.

A forensic facial reconstruction expert compared Weber’s photos to Cooper’s composite sketch and found them to be a close match, but the FBI felt this was not enough to close the case. That sketch may be all we will ever know about the hijacker.

They must learn how to gently interview witnesses in order to coax accurate details about a suspect’s appearance from the witness’s memory. It is a forensic artist’s job to get witnesses to provide these clear details, then to arrange them into a picture of a human face that other people might recognize and identify.

Sketches Bring Tips

In spring 2003 someone started setting apartment buildings on fire in Prince George’s County, Maryland. During the course of the year, the arsonist set more than thirty buildings ablaze. His smoldering handiwork injured dozens of people and ruined many homes. For months, police and firefighters had no leads and no tips to help them catch the elusive person who was lighting the blazes. Then a woman came forward and said she had met the culprit. She claimed she had come home and discovered him as he prepared to set fire to her building. Investigators hoped that the woman would be able to remember what the suspect looked like so a forensic artist could make a sketch.

When forensic artists interview witnesses about facial characteristics of a person, they ask for specific details such as the color of the hair and the type of hairstyle, the color and shape of the eyes, the shape and proportion of the nose and mouth, and any particular facial expressions, such as a look of anger or surprise. The forensic artist who interviewed the Prince George’s County arson witness gathered details such as these and used the witness’s descriptions to draw a portrait of a middle-aged man with a medium build and salt-and-pepper-colored hair. When this sketch was shown on the evening news, the Fire Department’s tip line was flooded with calls. Within twenty-four hours, dozens of tips poured in, and for the first time in months, police had leads. “It’s all we have to go on at this point,” a spokesman for the Fire Department told the Washington Times.1

Despite the tips it generated, the sketch itself did not ultimately lead to the arrest of the arsonist, who was finally apprehended two years later after leaving a pair of Marine Corps dress pants behind at one of his fires, evidence police were able to trace back to him. Although the composite sketch was not the clue that led to the arsonist’s capture, the man police arrested was fifty years old and had dark hair that was turning gray, just as the sketch had depicted.

The artists who create these composite sketches are not investigators, and they do not personally solve crimes. In fact, as the arson example shows, their work may not even turn up any leads that are helpful. But because these artists draw people very well and are skilled at interviewing eyewitnesses, they are in a unique position to use their talents to assist police. When their depictions appear in news programs, in newspapers, and on flyers around a community, they usually stir up a lot of response. The tip lines may start ringing at police stations, and even a cold case can get warm again.

Most artists who use their talents to help solve crime find it very rewarding. Lois Gibson, a nationally respected forensic artist, says that artists who develop a taste for forensic drawing come to think of it as their calling. “[They] find helping investigators capture violent offenders so gratifying,” she says. “They rarely care for any other kind of work thereafter.”2

A Job Without Glory

The skills of a forensic artist are not always appreciated by the public or by other artists. Not every sketch they create helps to solve a crime, and those that do sometimes look nothing like the actual offender. The sketches that appear on the evening news are often rough and sometimes incomplete.

However, Gibson says, that is often the point. “Forensic art is the only artistic profession where the image can be poorly done, sketchy, unfinished, and otherwise flawed yet become perfect if it generates a successful outcome,” she explains. “No matter how poorly a sketch from a witness comes out, if it helps identify the perpetrator depicted, it becomes a perfect work.”3

Investigators are not looking for art they can frame, but for art that helps solve a crime. “In this line of work,” Gibson says, ”catching the criminal is more important than work that looks good.”4 In fact, less is often more when it comes to forensic sketching. A picture that people are told looks kind of like a suspect may bring in more calls than a picture that is said to look exactly like a suspect. A forensic artist may, therefore, create a vague picture on purpose.

Becoming a Forensic Artist

Job Description:

Forensic artists are called on to perform many tasks. They composite sketches of suspects, sculpt or sketch facial reconstructions, create age progressions of missing persons, and sketch crime scenes. Some specialize in just one task, such as sculpting facial reconstructions, while others perform all tasks.


An associate’s degree in a technical or artistic field is the minimum requirement. Many forensic artists take classes in biology, psychology, or anthropology in addition to formal training in art, and they may also need training in computer programs used for sketches and facial reconstruction.


Forensic artists can become certified through the International Association for Identification. This requires eighty hours of approved coursework, one year of work experience, and twenty-five composite drawings, two of which have to successfully lead to the identification of a suspect.

Additional Information:

Many forensic artists are freelancers who develop their own list of clients. They must work well with little supervision. Excellent communication and people skills are essential, especially during witness interviews. Forensic artists may be asked to present artwork or testify in court.


$25,000 to $50,000 or more per year

The fact that forensic art is rarely gallery-quality work does not make the finished product any less of an art form. Drawing the likeness of a suspect using only what the witness can remember and put into words is extremely hard to do, no matter how well the artist can draw. Forensic artists cannot make assumptions about what a finished face should look like, and they do not have the freedom to add in extra details that they think would make a picture more pleasing to the eye. In creating sketches, they can use only the specific details the witness provides, putting these details in the right place and proportion on the page to the best of their ability. The forensic quality of artists’ work depends as much on their skill at collecting accurate details from witnesses as it does on their ability to sketch.

Interviewing a Witness

Before a forensic artist can begin a sketch, he or she must interview a witness. There are many different kinds of witnesses. Some call the police themselves to report what they have seen. Some have been tracked down by police and might feel they are being forced to talk. Often, the witness is also the victim of a crime. Sometimes, the witness is injured in the incident. Sometimes, the witness is simply so horrified by what she has seen or experienced that she does not want to talk about it at all. “Being asked to provide accurate descriptions in such a situation must be extremely unpleasant,” says pathologist Ian Hill. “Not surprisingly, the details may not always be as accurate as might be desired.”5

Some witnesses do not realize that they are witnessing a crime or seeing a suspect, so they may not have been paying attention to details. Others may insist they do not remember what happened or who they saw well enough to describe anything. Still other witnesses speak a different language than the artist, and some are children who do not yet know enough words to describe people’s faces in detail. Some witnesses may even want to protect the suspect and thus might provide false information on purpose. All of these are interviewing challenges a forensic artist might deal with in a day’s work. At least half the job is the interview with the witness, and if artists cannot do this well, they will never get around to drawing a sketch.

Working Quickly

Police and the community want to see a forensic sketch as soon as possible after a crime takes place. The chance that someone will recognize a composite sketch is higher while the news of the crime is still fresh in the public’s mind. So the forensic artist is urged to work fast, but the witness often requires time and patience. “The atmosphere in which the drawings are created is fraught with stress unimaginable to artists not in the profession,” says Gibson. “The drawings put on public display from forensic artists . . . are done with distressed witnesses under time pressure.”6

Sketch Pads to Touch Pads

Many artists are pencil-and-paper sorts who like the feel of a sheet of vellum under their wrist and a sturdy pencil between their fingers. Drawing with a computer used to mean fumbling around with a clumsy mouse that jumped off its pad whenever it hit the edge of the virtual paper. The graphics and “undo” features were nice, but it was hard for some artists to switch from paper to a computer.

Gone are the days of having to choose between the two. Today’s forensic artists use touch pads and tablets—computer hardware that replaces a mouse with a wireless pen and a writing pad that responds to even the tiniest bit of tilt or pressure. With these tools, drawing and erasing on screen feels just like doing it on paper. There are even different nib styles to create thin or thick lines. Artists can scroll and zoom, shade and color with just a click of their wireless pen.

When the image is done, it can be saved as a digital file, so artists can immediately send the image to police, who then can get a high-resolution sketch of a suspect out to the media as fast as their Internet connection can send it. The technology is great news for impatient detectives and artists with sore wrists. (But bad news for suspects on the lam.)

Time can work against the interview in other ways. A witness may be coming forward to share the details he remembers months or years after the crime happened, for example, and the artist then has to prompt the witness to remember enough details to create an accurate sketch. To get past some of these challenges and to save time, forensic artists bring an important tool with them to an interview—a group of visual aids. These pictures can help witnesses remember and describe individual parts of the offender’s face so the artist can draw them accurately.

The FBI Facial Identification Catalog is one of the most common aids artists use to help witnesses describe faces in detail. This catalog has pictures of almost any kind of facial feature imaginable, grouped by ethnic types and general shapes. There are pages of eyes, for instance, that are broken down into smaller sections such as “bulging eyes.” There are pictures of flat noses, sharp noses, and long noses, full lips and thin lips, and beards and mustaches in many different styles. A witness looks through these various features and picks out those that look most like the individual features of the suspect. An artist can then pull the features together into a face that the public might recognize. This process often moves along far more quickly than if the witness has no visual aids to look at when describing a face.

Even with the help of a facial identification catalog, forensic artists must give witnesses privacy and time to think. Artists can draw only what the witness remembers—no more and no less. They also cannot lead the witness in any way. In other words, they cannot make suggestions that might cause witnesses to doubt what they remember. The artist’s job is to suggest nothing about a suspect’s appearance, but instead, to let the witness remember, and then illustrate that memory on paper.

Making the Sketch

The actual work of drawing a face from a witness’s memory is a complicated process. At the same time, the artist’s goal is to keep the drawing simple. Facial features that are especially noticeable—thick lips, bushy eyebrows, high cheekbones, a double

chin—are important to include in the sketch, because these are things that might make the face recognizable to people who are seeing the sketch for the first time.

Adding too many details other than the most prominent features, however, is something forensic artists try to avoid. Not only does it take up valuable time, but it can also make a drawing too specific to be useful. “It is far better to have a sketchy, haphazard drawing that brings in the perpetrator of the crime,” says Gibson, “than to drive the witness to distraction and burnout by spending too much time making the sketch ‘look good.’”7 Even sketchy drawings, though, must look like actual human faces. This is why the artist must have a strong background in the basic principles of drawing and shading, along with comprehensive training in how to draw the particular elements of human faces. A cartoon-style picture with sharp outlines of facial features may not look enough like a real face to bring any calls in to the police’s tip line, and therefore, effective composites use shading, not sharp outlines, for features such as lips, noses, and eyes and the places where the face rises and falls around them.

Drawing a human face, as forensic artists do, is similar to accurately drawing a mountain. The land rises and falls, but drawing these changes in height requires skillful shading, or the image will appear more like a big mound of swirls and circles than like an actual, realistic mountain. Drawing a human face takes training and practice in shading to show depth and slope. Noses in particular are like a little hill on a human face, and they must be shaded instead of outlined in order to look real. This takes a lot of training and practice. Many artists who master the shading of a nose concentrate so much on that aspect that they overlook the nose’s size. A common mistake in composite sketches is making the nose too long, which in turn can make the whole face look very different than the person it is supposed to resemble.

Eyes are other trouble spots. Because they are made up of many components—the lids, the lashes, the eyeballs, the irises, the pupils, and the eyebrows—they are very difficult to draw accurately. Misrepresenting the tilt of an eyebrow or drawing lids too high or low can completely change the look of a face. An artist who does not get the details of the eyes right may create a drawing of someone that nobody will recognize. This is, in part, what makes forensic art such a difficult specialty even for someone with excellent drawing skills.

Every forensic sketch needs the main features of the face (eyes, nose, lips, and ears) drawn realistically, but even with these features, the drawing may not look much like the offender. This is especially true if the witness remembers the details inaccurately. Fortunately, says Gibson, “some of the more obvious features, the things that make a person unique, are not always the eyes, nose, or mouth.”8 Sometimes, the details that the witness remembers most clearly are not the position of the cheekbones or the width of the nose, but a tattoo or other unique feature that could result in a positive identification, even in a drawing whose other elements do not resemble the perpetrator exactly.

Hair, Metal, and Ink

One goal of any forensic sketch is to show at least one thing about the suspect that will make someone in the community recognize him. Forensic artists are generally careful not to add too many specific details, because if they get the specifics just a bit wrong, it can completely change the look of the person in the sketch. The result of their efforts, therefore, is often a fairly generic drawing that looks like a lot of people who are that same gender, race, and age. Although sketches like these can still be useful in giving police a general idea of what a suspect may look like, the most useful drawings are those that look like only one person. Once the artist has the basic facial features on paper, he or she then asks the witness about certain specific details such as hairstyle, scars, tattoos, or any other features that might transform a generic sketch into a recognizable one.

Hair is one of the most important features of any composite drawing. “The hairline on your suspect is a large feature and a distinct, easily noticeable identifier,”9 Gibson says. A bald man looks very different from one who wears dreadlocks, for instance, and a woman with straight bangs stands out from one with curly hair. Even identical twins, with different hairstyles, will look unique. For men, facial hair—a mustache or beard—is another valuable feature for a forensic artist. Whether a suspect had a beard or a mustache, and if so, what it looked like, are other things that often stick out in a witness’s mind. Such details, even more than eyes or lips, can result in calls and leads from the public. Even if the suspect has changed his hairstyle or shaved off a mustache or a beard, says Gibson, “his acquaintances will still remember his facial hair and notice the change.”10

Like hair, other important features of any composite drawing are facial piercings or tattoos. These end up helping forensic artists a great deal. The one

thing a witness might remember well about an offender could be a unique tattoo on the person’s face and if the artist focuses on this one detail and draws it well, the rest of the portrait can be completely inaccurate—even the wrong ethnicity or gender, in fact—but still lead police to the offender if a member of the public recognizes the tattoo and tells police the name of the person who has it.

Similarly, scars can be invaluable to a sketch. Acne scars, for example, commonly turn up in forensic sketches, and although they are not easy to draw, they are memorable to witnesses and make an important difference in the look of the finished sketch. Scars from injuries can be more useful still. A crescent-shaped scar on a person’s forehead or cheek will stand out, much like a tattoo does, as a memorable feature not only to the witness but also to anyone who knows the suspect. As with tattoos, scars shown in a sketch can be used to track a suspect down even if they are the only details of a sketch that turn out to be right.

Dressing the Perpetrator

Once the facial features of a forensic sketch are drawn, one task remains for the artist: drawing a neck and shoulders. These are important features of a portrait, because without them, the head in the picture seems to hover unnaturally. These details also help to capture extra information about the person, such as body size, that can be hard to show in any other way. Necks can be short and thick or long and skinny, for example, and shoulders can be broad or they can sag. The neck and shoulders also give the artist a chance to draw some of the clothing a witness might remember.

Witnesses often remember a person’s clothing even more than a face. They can usually recall whether a man was dressed in a T-shirt or a business suit, for example, or whether a woman had on a red blouse or a white halter. Clothing is a detail many people pay attention to when surrounded by strangers. They may take note of a fashion they like or hate, a logo they recognize, or clothing that stands out because of its color, size, quality, or attractiveness. People are likely to pay closer attention to the kind of clothing a stranger is wearing than to the shape of the person’s nose or the color of his eyes, partly because clothing can be observed without appearing to stare at someone. This means witnesses may stand a better chance of remembering details about clothing than about facial features.

Drawing clothing benefits a forensic drawing because it gives the public additional clues about the personality, the age, and possibly even the occupation of the person in the picture. Rarely do forensic sketches show people in clothing as specific as a baseball jersey with a team name and number on it or a waitress uniform with a name tag on the chest pocket, but even the difference between a T-shirt and a dress shirt or a turtleneck versus spaghetti straps can be a hint to the suspect’s personality and character. Criminal investigators have learned that men, in particular, tend to dress much the same way every day, so it is likely that a suspect shown wearing a polo shirt in a forensic sketch probably wears a lot of polo shirts. Thus, a

clothing style might spark recognition for someone who sees the composite sketch.

Accessories such as hats and glasses help round out a forensic sketch. Many offenders wear these items when committing crimes, perhaps in an effort to disguise themselves, and it is fairly easy for most witnesses to remember the shape, color, and style of a hat or a pair of glasses. Gibson says that a hat in a drawing has the added benefit of helping the artist show how large or small the suspect is. “Since most hats are made about the same size,” she explains, “you can indicate really large or rather small suspects by sizing the hat proportional to their head in the drawing.”11

Manuals such as the FBI Facial Identification Catalog can help witnesses quickly narrow down the exact style of hat or glasses they remember. Sometimes, they point out a large hat and wide, dark sunglasses, and the artist may begin to fear that the finished sketch will show a face too disguised to help the case. Even when a forensic artist feels a finished sketch is not likely to be useful to police, she must train herself to leave the sketch alone. “For legal and practical purposes,” Gibson says, “you can sketch only what was seen during the crime.”12 As soon as the witness says that a sketch looks like the person he saw, the artist must put her pencil down, hand the drawing over to the police, and go on to the next assignment.