Composite Drawing
Composite images are the “bread and butter” of any working forensic artist. Composite drawings are defined in the Composite Art Manual by Frank Domingo as “a freehand drawing made by combining various parts into a single graphicimage.” A composite image’s main objective is to generate leads for the investigating detectives. There are various techniques available to complete a composite image. The primary technique is the hand drawn method. In this case an artist, with drawing skills and training in interviewing victims and witnesses,will prepare a hand drawn image from reference images selected by the witnessinto a drawing that represents the memory of the witness or victim as accuratelyas possible.

Does the drawing need to look exactly like the perpetrator to be effective? No, it does not. The likeness should be as accurate as possible, but a general orclose likeness will in many cases stimulate recognition on the part of viewers. In contrast to the commonly held belief that highly detailed or photographic images are more effective, these images actually narrow the scope of interpretationon the part of the viewer who simply concludes that they don’t know the person in the picture rather than considering the likeness possibilities. Numbers of drawings done by artists vary from state to state, city to city, and town to town, but can range from one or two a year to several hundred. The success of a composite image is based solely on how an investigating officer does ordoes not utilize the image. Much ado is sometimes made about the clearing rate of an individual artist, but allowing credit to go to the artist for the successful clearing of a composite image is paramount to crediting a pie tin manufacturer for the outcome of a prize winning apple pie.

Assemblage and computer generated composite images have been on the scene for quite a long time and some of the processes, in the right hands, can be very effective. The most distinct failings though, of mostly all mechanical processes, are the lack of facial features and the costs to run or access the systems. Faces vary in limitless ways. Mechanically assembled image systems can only offer a limited number of facial features. The frustrating part about these systems is that the more features that are available with the programs, the more likely the operator will have a hard time accessing the features. This will most likely confuse and frustrate the victim or witness in the process. Costs can be prohibitive as well. A system that offers unlimited access to the facial features of 18 to 30 year old black and white males fails to account for the crimes committed by the occasional female, Asian, Latin, or older suspects. Here’s where they get you. In some systems, separate race and sex packages are available at additional costs. But in most programs you’re left to try and get where you need to go with what they offer. Operators are forced at some point to tell a witness or victim, “Sorry, I don’t have that feature.” That is unacceptable.

Three Dimensional Reconstruction
In cases of severely decomposed or completely skeletonized remains, a facial reconstruction on the skull is an option to assist with identification of unknown remains. Reconstruction is very often a last resort in the identification process and is usually sought after procedural processes, such as a thorough check of national missing persons records, a check of fingerprints if available through national databases, and a comparison of dental records, to name a few. The process begins with the collection of available scene information regarding descriptive specifics such as clothing size, clothing style, and accessories like jewelry, all of which lend themselves to the individuality of the subject. The next step is to get an anthropological analysis of the skull. The outcome of the analysis will be a scientific determination of gender, race, and an approximate age range. This evaluation by a Forensic Anthropologist can be done with just a skull, but a much larger amount of information can be gleaned from the entire skeleton if it’s available. After obtaining all available scene and anthropological information, the physical facial reconstruction can begin.

There are several processes available to achieve a reconstructed face. The most commonly used method is the tissue depth or American method, pioneered here in the United States by Ms. Betty Pat Gatliff of SKULLpture Lab, in Norman, Oklahoma. Ms. Gatliff’s contribution to the development of this system is so significant that it is recognized internationally and commonly referred to as the “Gatliff” method. The system is based on the “Rhine/Moore” tissue depth tables that require the placement of tissue depth markers on 21 different anthropological landmarks on the facial plane of the skull. Clay is then filled in using a multitude of specific facial feature measurements to reach, in most cases, a close approximation of the facial features of the person in life. The likeness of a facial reconstruction, if done correctly, is almost assured due to the simple fact that one’s skull dictates an individual’s facial proportions in life. Factors affecting subtle changes in one’s facial features, such as increased weight or hair color and length, are why scene information is critical to the successful outcome of the reconstruction. Other methods, such as the anatomical method, require the placement of known facial muscles, one at a time. The combination method is a combination of the tissue depth method and the anatomical method. Upon completion of the facial reconstruction, the requesting investigator prepares fliers and possibly some news coverage in an effort to get the reconstruction identified.

Two Dimensional Reconstruction
The process of reconstructing a face can also be completed through the use of two dimensional or hand drawn techniques.  This process utilizes life size scale images of the skull at a specific angle with all the same tissue depth markers as the three dimensional reconstruction. A hand drawn reconstruction is then completed of the face both in frontal and profile angles. This process was pioneered by Ms. Karen Taylor while a forensic artist at the Texas Department of Public Safety. Ms. Taylor has literally “written the book” on forensic art. In 2001, Ms. Taylor through CRC Press, published Forensic Art and Illustration. Her book is considered the definitive resource on the topic of forensic art and is commonly referred to as the forensic artist’s bible.

Post Mortem Imaging
In cases where a decedent is discovered and has features that are mostly recognizable, less drastic measures are available. Most news media will not publish or broadcast a picture of a decedent on a morgue table. A sketch, from morgue or crime scene images, can be completed for media broadcast with hopes of stimulating a response from a family member or friend who may have recognized the person and knows that they are missing. A more likely scenario, with the availability of Adobe Photoshop software, is the enhancement of the same morgue or scene shots to make the presentation of the decedent with their natural features, but with skin color enhancements and removal of the obvious signs of death, such as injuries and background.

Age Progression
Age progression is most prominent on ADVO Cards that are distributed all over the country for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Virginia. The images are generally of children but age progression can also prove to be an effective tool in the fugitive recovery process. With some general knowledge of a subject’s desired living environment, personal hygiene habits, and how parents and siblings have aged, a relatively accurate approximation of a person’s appearance can be made.  In this facet of forensic art, individual recognition is a priority, thus great strides have been made to employ a system that most effectively utilizes the actual features of the sought individual.

Demonstrative Evidence
Demonstrative evidence is art that is used in courtroom presentations to give a verbal reference a visual impact. A demonstrative display can range from the mounting of an enlarged photograph to a very complicated, built to scale diorama.

Job Opportunities
The second most frequently asked question in the field of forensic art is “How do I get a job in the field?” The reply to that question varies from artist to artist around the country. Some might tell an individual that there are great opportunities for freelancing in the “business” of forensic art. Others, while promoting the sale of instruction, will not only attempt to appeal to the forensic art entrepreneur, they’ll assure the interested party that drawing skills need not even be a part of the package they bring to the training. The truth is that there are very limited positions available in forensic art and there are almost no full-time positions. Free-lancing has become a very difficult hurdle due to the tightening of access to victims and witnesses in criminal cases. It is more sensible for a police administrator to train a sworn officer or department employee in the skills than outsource the work to individuals who have questionable backgrounds, abilities, and training in the handling of victims and have no ability whatsoever to maintain or handle evidence. State agencies, larger cities, and counties with higher criminal activity will be the most likely scenario for a full-time forensic art staff. But even in those cases, a very few staff members can handle the workload. It is not at all odd for a single composite artist, performing the task as an aside to a primary position, to be able to handle all of the composite and forensic art needs of an entire county agency. This is not entirely because of the ease of the service. A contributing circumstance to this is the under use of an art that is not fully understood as the effective investigative tool that it can be, if properly utilized. As more detectives and investigators around the country develop a relationship with their local forensic artist, more of their services will be utilized and more positions will be available.


  • Domingo, Frank. Composite Art Manual. The International Association for Identification,
  • Taylor, Karen. Forensic Art and Illustration. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2000.