What is a Forensic Artist?

Considering becoming a forensic artist? Here is everything you need to know before you decide to dive headfirst into this unique industry!

A forensic artist is a valuable source of information for law enforcement officials and legal proceedings. These skilled professionals implement their artistic talent in sketch, sculpture, and digital drawing to render suspect sketches, facial reconstructions, missing person sketches, crime scene sketches, age progression, and regression sketches, and evidence illustrations.

Forensic art is used to portray evidence to juries, to identify the unknown deceased, to locate missing persons, to depict crime scenes, and to identify criminal suspects in various settings including courtrooms and police investigations.

 In the following article, I will look at what you need to know about forensic artistry. Topics I will cover include–

  • What is a Forensic Artist?
  • What Are the Forensic Art Disciplines?
  • What Are the Educational and Certification Requirements For a Forensic Artist?
  • What is a Forensic Artist’s Salary?

What is a Forensic Artist?

A forensic artist is an artist that utilizes their creative talent to assist law enforcement or judicial officials in diverse types of legal proceedings. Most often, this professional creates composite sketches of suspects in crimes. For example, they listen to a witness describe a suspect and draw or digitally render a visual representation of that suspect based on the witness’s description.

A forensic artist usually provides forensic artistry services and works in a related field – for example, they may be a police officer and provide forensic artistry services on the side. Occasionally forensic artists may work full-time in a sizeable metropolitan area or work for a significant forensic institution.

To excel in their role, a forensic artist must have artistic talent, but they should have a degree of legal knowledge and the necessary interviewing skills, too.

What Are the Forensic Art Disciplines?

There are multiple disciplines within the forensic art field. While one artist may specialize in various art disciplines, most frequently, an artist specializes in one forensic art discipline using a particular medium.

There are three major forensic art disciplines – post mortem reconstruction, age progression or image modification, and composite art.

Postmortem Reconstruction

Postmortem reconstruction is when an artist uses clay sculpture, computer software, or pencil sketching to render a deceased person as they would have been in life. To create a postmortem reconstruction, a forensic artist references skeletal remains or photographs of remains.

Postmortem reconstructions are most frequently used to identify unidentified and unclaimed remains.

Age Progression or Image Modification

Age progression or image modification is the editing of an image to reflect the passage or regression of time or changes in appearance. Age progression or image modification is most often completed via computer software today, but some forensic artists still rely on clay sculpture or pencil sketching.

Age progression is most frequently used to locate individuals who have been missing for a significant period.

Age regression can help identify “found” individuals that have been missing or “off the radar” for a period. Lastly, image modification is most frequently used to portray suspects or missing persons who may have changed in appearance since law enforcement, family, or friends last saw them.

Composite Art

Composite art is when a forensic artist renders an individual based on interview question-and-answer sessions with witnesses who saw the suspect in a crime. The forensic artist asks a series of questions to obtain as much information as possible, then uses that information to create a visual representation of the suspect.

Composite art is most often done using software programs or by pencil sketching.

The forensic artist creates composite art by focusing on specific aspects of the human anatomy one at a time – for example, their eyes, mouth, nose, etc.

Legal professionals often use composite art to identify suspects that manage to escape a crime scene. Occasionally – in the absence of witnesses – composite art can be made using low-quality photo and video captures.

What Are the Educational And Certification Requirements For a Forensic Artist?

To obtain a well-paying position in forensic artistry, an artist must achieve a high-school diploma. It is also helpful for students to complete an associate or bachelor’s degree in a fine arts program, or criminal justice program.

Once a student has obtained their college degree, it is necessary to obtain forensic artist certification through the IAI (The IAI is the International Association for Identification and is the largest and oldest forensic institution worldwide.)

To obtain IAI certification, students must:

  • Take eighty hours of forensic art training classes from an IAI-approved forensic art training program.
  • Participate in forty hours of lectures, workshops, and short program training in forensic artistry.
  • Have at least two years of experience as a forensic artist with appropriate confirmation letters certifying those hours of credit.
  • Work at least thirty forensic art cases which may fall into any of the three forensic artistry disciplines.
  • Submit a professional portfolio that demonstrates previous cases and art techniques.

If the IAI accepts the application and portfolio, the IAI requires all students to undergo a practical and written exam.

After passing testing, students must get recertified every five years after their initial certification. There are two types of forensic artist certification renewal – one for the first-time renewal and one for the second – each has unique requirements to follow.

In total, it costs approximately $7,000 to obtain forensic artist certification through the IAI.

Obtaining certification through the IAI is not mandatory for a forensic artist; however, it does provide a “leg up” over job candidates without this type of certification. IAI certification can also contribute to qualifying the certificate holder as an expert witness.

What is a Forensic Artist’s Salary?

According to Comparably.com – – a website dedicated to transparency in the workplace for employers and employees – a forensic artist’s salary can range from just $12,993 to as much as $345,074 annually. The average forensic artist’s salary tends to run between $63,061 and $156,629 annually.

Location is one of the most significant influencing factors on salary. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that a forensic artist living in California make an average annual salary of $82,650, where the same artist living in Florida makes just $50,620 (although it is necessary to consider the drastic difference in the cost of living between these two areas during comparison.