Only Online: When to Call a Forensic Artist
Written by Barbara A. Martin Bailey   

Why and When to Call the Forensic Artist

A FORENSIC ARTIST can often be called on to carry out a variety of applications for an investigative case that are faster and maybe even cheaper than some of the digital alternatives.

When you compare a forensic artist to computer programs that generate composite images, I believe you will find that a forensic artist is 1) less expensive, 2) faster, and 3) has many more capabilities. For example, a forensic artist can do many additional disguises and individualized characteristics than what is available in a computer program. Many of those additions—such as moustaches, scars, beards, glasses, scarves, or tattoos—often cause the computer program to fail, and then nothing can be printed out to show to the public.

I also believe that a forensic artist can more accurately capture the genre of the person’s personality. It is the genre of the personality that people see on the TV news that makes a citizen, probation officer, or other law-enforcement officer call in a tip (see Figure A and Figure B). After all, a composite drawing is NOT meant to be a photograph, but a similarity that can eliminate thousands of persons in a highly populated area to arrive at a relatively small group of people to be considered further in following up on in an investigation.

Figure A Figure B

This is usually the downfall area of the computer-based programs. A drawing can be “sort of like”, whereas when you see a computer-generated, photograph-quality composite of a person’s face, the image becomes “it is!”

Composite Drawings

Whether you are working with a computer-based composite program or an artist, training is still necessary to achieve the best possible outcome. Many composite drawings can be produced in a couple of hours and then scanned, e-mailed, and disseminated to thousands within minutes, saved on a CD, and a hardcopy sized to fit in the investigator’s case file jacket. Plus, with an artist you can get more facial variations, expressions, teeth, jewelry, tattoos, and piercings drawn into a hand-drawn composite compared to most computer programs (see Figure C and Figure D). The composites may also be accompanied by sketches of customized vehicles, vehicle damage, or one-of-a-kind items such as custom-made jewelry that may have been stolen.

Figure C Figure D

Adding these additional items of detail to a wanted poster’s information could provide the break you need to identify a suspect.

Video Enhancements

Video enhancements are another way a forensic artist can assist your department. When frames captured from a low-quality surveillance camera produce a pixilated, blurry image, a forensic artist who has studied anatomy and perspective can often visualize rotation of the face, compensate for foreshortening and distortion, and accommodate facial structure where most people will only see blurry, gray shapes. So far, there are no computer-based programs that can effectively deal with foreshortened, shadowed shapes. Working from just a few still photo shots, a forensic artist can produce fairly accurate facial imagery (see Figure 1, Figure 2, Figure 3, and Figure 4).

Figure 1
Still photo from surveillance camera
Figure 2
Enlargement of area from Figure 1
Figure 3
Artist rendering
Figure 4
Suspect’s photograph for comparison
A probation officer saw the artists rendering and called in the name of the suspect within 15 minutes of broadcasting the image on the 6 p.m. local television news

Facial Reconstruction

Depending on your jurisdiction, you may need facial reconstructions frequently or only on a rare occasion. Whether the unidentified person is a victim of a natural disaster, serial murder, or a body haphazardly unearthed during the construction of a new building, a forensic artist may be able to help you give a face to that John or Jane Doe.

Two-dimensional (2D) facial reconstructions (drawings) are still the cheapest and often the quickest way to get out fast, accurate, and timely likenesses. 2D reconstructions can be created from X-rays, crime-scene photos, or morgue photos. Most artists like to have the crime-scene incident report describing the discovery of the body (or skull). The medical examiner’s report is also vital. Usually, the forensic artist will need a light box, millimeter rulers, clear acetate, permanent markers, layout paper, pencils, and erasers. This is the fastest and cheapest way to have a facial reconstruction executed.

Three-dimensional (3D) facial reconstructions require clay, cutting tools, clay sculpture tools, materials to build an armature and base, and some kind of tissue markers to mark the soft-tissue depth locations using airplane glue. The clay can be oil or water based. There are two reconstruction methods: “American” and “Manchester” style. The time needed to execute a 3D reconstruction can vary from three to five days, depending on which method is utilized. (See Figure 5, Figure 6, Figure 7, Figure 8, Figure 9, and Figure 10). Both methods utilize the “Frankfurt” plane as the correct visual facial view to position the head onto the spine and neck area as an axis to work from. Both methods work to return the skull in a clean condition to the next of kin. Molds can be made and plaster skulls can be worked on to limit any damage that might occur while working with fragile facial bones. 3D tends to be time-consuming job.

Figure 5 Figure 6
Figure 7 Figure 8
Figure 9 Figure 10

Figure 5, Figure 6, and Figure 7 all deal with an s-dimensional reconstruction of a cold case in the state of Nevada. Many forensic artists do not like to work on a case without having the lower mandible as a reference. This was a 20-year-old cold homicide case where the skull was baked in the sand and, as a result, the skull was in a flaking condition. Because there were concerns that taking a mold of the skull could cause additional damage, no mold was produced. Instead, a photograph was captured showing the skull on a Frankfurt plane with a millimeter ruler in place to show scale. Subsequent images were captured with the ruler in place showing a full 360° view of the skull. These photographs could then be e-mailed. After examination of the photographs, taking measurements, etc., the victim’s right cheekbone could be completed. It was decided to finish off the lower portion of the skull utilizing Leonardo da Vinci’s and Michelangelo’s divine proportions. This would allow the victim to fall into a “normal” range and give the skull an opportunity to be completed, published, and hopefully provide a lead on an identity. Figure 7 shows the final 2D facial reconstruction. This result was published and, just 15 days later, a family came forward with a name. DNA analysis was performed and the results yielded a positive identification. It was, admittedly, a gamble to assume that the skull was normal (as opposed to showing some abnormal tendencies). However, after 20 years and no leads, a gamble was worth it to attempt to bring the case to a conclusion.

Figure 8 is an example of a photograph of a missing person from South Carolina (right), and a 2-dimensional drawing of a deceased unidentified body from Tennessee (left). Usually, when investigating a missing person or a homicide, two states are not in communication regarding unidentified bodies and missing persons. But the homicide case went through the Doe Network, an organization that is made up of volunteers and acts as a central database for missing persons and unidentified remains. Now with a Federal grant behind them, their artists’ work is viewed by a central group of volunteers who try to line up and match these cases. The volunteer artists, known as EDAN (Everyone Deserves A Name), update missing persons photos and does facial reconstructions of deceased unidentified persons. These cases are usually considered cold cases and are submitted by law enforcement agencies from Australia, North America, and Eastern Europe. The artistic work, database entry, and publishing on the organization’s website,, are free to an agency that submits a case. This is a good resource that every agency should utilize. If it hadn’t been for the Doe Network and its volunteers, South Carolina and Tennessee would never have connected. The missing person was reported in 1993 and the body was discovered in 1997. The unidentified body from Tennessee was broadcast on Court TV in 2002, but that still did not generate any leads. Finally, in 2004, the drawing of the facial reconstruction was published, a lead—including the person’s name—was generated, and a set of fingerprints was compared. The match was confirmed.

Figure 9 and Figure 10 are two 3D facial reconstruction cases. The American method (see Figure 9) uses 21 points of reference, a webbing structure built from point to point, and requires a great deal of sculpting ability. To completely assemble the skull, as author Gyorgy Feher points out, knowledge of the bones is important: “The skull is composed of 22 (6 single and 8 paired) bones. With the exception of the mandible, these are rigidly attached to each other by sutures.” For either reconstruction method, these bones must be studied at length for correct placements, prior to placing any tissue depth markers. The Manchester Method (see Figure 10) utilizes 35 points of reference and stresses that the reconstruction should be built anatomically: that is, muscle by muscle and ligament by ligament, with a paper-thin layer of clay rolled out, then the clay is draped and seamed over the anatomical understructure, and finally the seams are smoothed out. Both processes use techniques similar to each other for artistic finishing of the sculpture, where skin texture and hair assimilation are concerned.

Photo-Facial Comparison and Analysis

Figure 11 Figure 12
Figure 13

The three photos above (see Figure 11, Figure 12, and Figure 13) are all the same person at different ages. This is an example of photo-facial comparison and analysis. This is a new process. The known photograph (A) was placed on a light box. The unknown submitted photograph (C) was placed on top of a copy of the photograph (A/C). Below that, you can see the charting on the matching points. These matching points of similarities are the same points I have used when referencing a photograph for a facial reconstruction, looking up soft-tissue charts used in reconstructions, and where they touch and overlap on the light box. After being extradited to Michigan, this individual pled guilty, and was sentenced in 2005. Figure 13 shows what she looks like today. Figure 14 shows the comparison and matching points charted out.

Figure 14

The Importance of Training

The artist should have a strong knowledge of anatomy that is gained through training and the time spent in execution. So should the technical person operating a computerized program before any facial manipulations are published to the public.

Figure 15 Figure 16 Figure 17

Age progressions are another tool of the forensic artist that needs considerable training. When age progressing a youthful person and developing an age progression, growth and anatomical development needs to be studied in depth. Age progressions are more complicated than just adding a few lines, bags, and wrinkles. According to Richard Neave, not everyone ages the same or at the same rate. Other considerations, such as lifestyle, overall health, habits such as drinking and smoking, parental development for comparison (if at all possible), and many other factors need to be studied while developing an age progression. Figure 15, Figure 16, and Figure 17 reflect that development as well as other lifestyle choices such as growing beards or mustaches.

Many larger agencies such as state police departments and the Federal Bureau of Investigation rely heavily on a trained artist rather than invest in a computerized program to “do it all”. An artist offers you creative thinking, illustrative abilities, and an avenue for interviewing victims and witnesses that might lead to more tips and information in an investigation.

The technician or operator of a computerized program should still be as skilled as a practicing artist in order to perform the most basic demands of an anatomically correct composite drawing of the suspect’s face.

Many forensic artists do composite drawings, several do facial reconstructions, but an even smaller amount of forensic artists are used for interviewing information, age progressions of missing persons, and wanted fugitives.

After September 11th, this country has seen more terrorist film clips and still-video frames of terrorists and wanted fugitives then in any time before. So it is a natural progression to see how forensic art, science, and law are coming together to solve problems. It is the video enhancements and photo-facial comparisons and analysis that are becoming an offshoot in the forensic artist’s toolbox of skills to offer a department. This should not be overlooked. The forensic artist today is learning how to utilize these new scientific skills and technology, and is putting them to creative use to help solve modern crimes. Maybe now is the time to call for a forensic artist near you to see just how they can assist you, your department, and the communities that surround you.

A New Resource for
Identifying Unidentified Decedents

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice released a fully searchable online system that compares cases in a missing persons database to those in an unidentified decedents database. The system, called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), is a clearinghouse for missing persons and unidentified decdent records. The system can be searched for free by medical examiners, coroners, law-enforcement officials, and the general public. To learn more, go to:

About the Author

Barbara A. Martin Bailey is an active and certified IAI Forensic Artist. As a forensic artist, she is currently assigned to the Forensic Science Laboratory with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office for the last 29 years, in Pontiac, Michigan. She is the American Director for the regional IAI group, Michigan-Ontario Identification Association, and she can be reach at: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


Martin P. Evison, “Modeling Age, Obesity, & Ethnicity in a Computerized 3-D Facial Reconstruction”, paper presented at 9th Biennial Meeting of International Association For Craniofacial Identification, FBI, Washington DC, July 2000, published in Forensic Science Communications, April 2001, Volume 3-Number 2.

Fagin, Gary, The Artist’s Complete Guide to Facial Expressions, Watson-Guptil Publication, New York, 1990, page 60. ISBN: 0-8230-1628-5.

Feherf, Gyorgy, Anatomy Drawing School, Konemann Publisher, Slovakia, 2006, pages 180, 186, and 1888. ISBN: 3-8331-2528-4.

Heafner, H. "Police composite art, facial reconstruction and other techniques," Journal of Forensic Identification (1966) 46:223-238.

Patterson, E., Sethuram, A., Albert, M, Ricanek, K., “Comparison of Synthetic Face Ageing to Age Progression by Forensic Sketch Artist”, (2007), p247-250. IASTED International Conference on Visualization, Imaging, and Image Processing, Spain, August 2007.

Neave, R. Age changes to the face in adulthood. In: Craniofacial Identification in Forensic Medicine. J.G. Clement and D.L. Ranson, eds. Oxford Press, New York, 1998, Part 3 paper packet. 225-234.

Dr. Caroline Wilkinson, Forensic Facial Reconstruction, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2004, page6. ISBN: 0-521-82003-0.

Taister, M., Holliday, Sandra D., and Borrman, H.I.M. Comments on Facial Aging in Law Enforcement Investigation, Forensic Science Communications [on line]. (2000 April, Volume 2, Number 2), published by U.S. Justice Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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Item of Interest

The language barrier between English-speaking investigators and Spanish-speaking witnesses is a growing problem. (Updated 28 February 2011)