Practical Tips for Working with a Forensic Artist
Written by Gary Gulick   

FORENSIC ART is relatively new to the world of law enforcement. That may sound like an absurd, uninformed statement, particularly since everyone can remember seeing pencil sketches that were done in the early part of the 20th Century…if not before.

But when you really stop to think about it, it may not be absurd at all. How many law-enforcement agencies have a forensic artist on the staff working full time? The answer is: Very few. There are perhaps 2,000 people who have taken classes in forensic art, but not many of them get paid to do it. As a matter of fact, if you look hard, you will find fewer than 20 full-time forensic artists in the United States.

To get an idea of how a trained forensic artist can work with police- department investigators and crime-scene personnel, we talked with two of those full-time forensic artists:

Lois Gibson is a forensic artist with the Houston (Texas) Police Department;

Stephen Mancusi is a forensic artist who works with the New York (New York) Police Department and other law-enforcement agencies.

What these two experienced artists had to say should provide some good, positive insight into how you can work with a forensic artist to achieve worthwhile results.

Forensic art, Lois Gibson, Houston Police DepartmentForensic art, Lois Gibson,  Houston Police Department

A woman was robbed in her store at the shopping mall. During a longer-than-usual sketching session, forensic artist Lois Gibson turned out the image on the left. The witness who gave the description of the perpetrator considered the sketch to be a failure—but it was good enough to help a detective identify the robber, as seen in the mugshot on the right. (Images shown here are courtesy of the Houston Police Department and Lois Gibson.)

“Forensic art is in its infancy,” said Lois Gibson. “Thirty or forty years ago, DNA was also a new technology in law enforcement. They didn’t allow it in court. And it took six months to just get DNA analyzed. We’ve made a lot of progress in that area…and in the areas of fingerprints and serology and hair and fibers. You have technology for everything you find at the crime scene. But you need a forensic artist because he or she will give you an image of someone—and that image can prompt someone to give you a name that you can match to the DNA or the fingerprints.”

According to Stephen Mancusi, a composite sketch of a subject is a tool—an investigative tool. “It’s not a hard piece of evidence,” said Mancusi. “But it can be considered a form of evidence—and at some point in many jurisdictions, a sketch can be brought into the legal proceedings.

“The investigator must understand that these images—a composite sketch, an age-progression sketch, or a skull reconstruction—are investigative tools. They are only meant to be likenesses of the unknown person. The end product is just an interpretation of what the forensic artist can put together under the circumstances of the sketching session.”

When to schedule
the sketching session

Most forensic artists will tell you that it is best to do the sketching session with the eyewitness as soon as possible after the event, before anyone talks with him and before his memory gets clouded or changes. But that may not be possible because so many things need to be done to start the investigation.

“If we can’t do the sketch quickly,” said Mancusi, “I try not to be too concerned about it. I do what I can do. But if I get the call early in the investigation—within hours of the crime—I may suggest that we do the sketch before the eyewitness views any photos or mug-shots. Why? Because viewing mugshots for hours is going to have an effect on the eyewitness’ memory.”

But what happens if the eyewitness has already been going over mugshots and says to the investigator, “This is not the guy that did it, but he looks a lot like him”? In that case, Mancusi said, the investigator should make sure to bring that mugshot to the sketching session so the artist can see it.

How to conduct
the sketching session

The most important fact to remember is that the eyewitness has most of the information that is needed to make the sketch. According to Gibson, what the artist needs to build the sketch is going to come from the mind of the witness, from deep within his memory.

“For the artist, it is like you are a surgeon and you are operating on the mind of the witness,” said Gibson. “You have to get his attention. You have to engage him. You have to talk him into giving you that information. And to do that, you have to think about what that eyewitness has just been through. He or she is in pain. Perhaps his wife has just been killed or his child has just been kidnapped or he, himself, has been robbed or assaulted.”

Gibson said the best thing the artist can do is to talk with the witness. Get him to relax. Perhaps even get him to smile or laugh a bit. “Laughing makes a person relax,” she said. “And it also helps a person access his memory. So after you get him relaxed, you go from laughter to asking questions about the unknown person’s features.”

Alone in a quiet room:
just the artist and the witness

Every forensic artist has his own way of conducting an interview-and-sketch session. Most will probably agree that the fewer people involved, the better.

When asked about this issue, Gibson said she did not want to be critical of any department’s procedures or protocols.

“But let’s be logical,” said Gibson. “If an eyewitness is going to work his memory to recall the details of a rough experience, then it is best to provide him with a quiet and relaxed atmosphere. If there are ten people in the same room, it is going to bother him and detract from the sketch. Even one extra person could be a problem.

“Look at it this way: You don’t want a big audience when you are talking about unpleasant things. And what could be more unpleasant than talking about a guy who held a knife to your throat and assaulted you? Or what if you were a child and you are asked to describe somebody who did something so bad that the doctors had to sew you back together again? You wouldn’t want an audience for that.”

Mancusi seemed to agree that the fewer people involved, the better it is. “The artist knows that he has to create a quiet, relaxed environment for the composite sketch,” said Mancusi. “And the investigator should know that, too. He should give the artist the information and then back off. Some investigators think that they should be part of the interview. But they shouldn’t. Instead, they should just sit back and let the artist do his or her job. It is important for the artist to be in total control.”

The personnel the forensic artist
usually works with:

The relationship between the forensic artist and other personnel who are working the case will vary from one police department to another—and maybe even from one case to another. For example: Mancusi said that he does not usually have a direct relationship with personnel from a crime-scene unit.

“Sometimes,” he explained, “when a body is recovered and we need a sketch, I’ll talk with someone from the crime-scene unit. But I usually work with the investigators.”

When asked what a forensic artist needs from other personnel—whether that person is an investigator or someone from the crime-scene unit—he pointed out that it depends on what the sketch is about.

“If we are doing a composite sketch, then we need certain types of information about the subject or the suspect. If we are doing a sketch about a dead body, then we need to know if there are any photographs that were taken before the body was delivered to the medical-examiner’s office.”

Mancusi listed a number of other things that would be helpful:

What is the purpose of the sketch? Is the subject unusual-looking? Was there any hair or fiber evidence that might be helpful? And if it is a dead body, the artist could use information on any clothing that was on the body when it was found, since this would give suggestions to the subject’s build.

“When you get right down to it, the job of the forensic artist is recording descriptive information that a witness gives us. Investigators on the case have descriptive information that they put in a report. They write the words…but we draw the pictures that become the visual record.”

The eyewitness interview
before and during the sketch

There is a big difference in the interaction that takes place between the eye-witness and the artist as compared to the eyewitness and the investigator. “Forensic artists interview the witness,” Mancusi said firmly. “We don’t interrogate. The investigators interrogate the witness because one of their first concerns is to make sure that what was reported really happened. So they will always be asking some pointed questions.

“But forensic artists assume that the witness is trying to help us. We are not there to determine if it happened or did not happen. We approach it as if the witness wants to do this, wants to help us identify the bad guy.”

Other information
that can be useful to the artist

The forensic artist can use almost any kind of information about the subject or suspect that is available. If there is more than one witness, the investigator should bring that person to the session. If there is surveillance video, the artist needs to see it. Why? Because even if the quality is not good, the artist might still be able to make out the shape of the subject’s head or the size of an ear or the subject’s hairstyle.

“The video or stills may not be good enough to identify the subject,” said Mancusi, “but we can put that information with the description we get from the eyewitness and it will probably be helpful to us in making a good and effective composite sketch.”

The point is simple: Anything and everything about the subject or suspect should be offered to the artist.

The sketching session
should move along quickly

According to Gibson, the artist should work as quickly as possible. “Once again,” she said, “I like to compare the sketching to major surgery: the faster, the better. An artist needs to practice, practice, practice…to improve his or her speed. It’ll take time. I didn’t really start kicking up my speed until I had made perhaps 1,000 sketches. There are big dividends for the witness by making sure the sketching session moves along smoothly and quickly.”

Gibson said the witness is almost always under extreme stress because of the recent traumatic event. “Just imagine what that witness feels. He or she is sitting there, dwelling on the worst thing that has ever happened in his or her entire life. The witness is very upset. Whatever you need to do, do it so you can speed up the process.”

Both Gibson and Mancusi stressed the point that there is a great flow of thoughts and emotions going through the eyewitness’ mind at the time of the sketching session. Almost everything a forensic artist needs in order to build a sketch of the subject or suspect will come from the mind of the witness. For that reason, everyone needs to treat the mind of the witness like it is gold.

Forensic art, Stephen MancusiForensic art, Stephen MancusiForensic art, Stephen Mancusi

A composite sketch is typically done in three stages as shown in these drawings from Stephen Mancusi’s website: [1] Proportions—The artist blocks out the facial proportions according to the comments of the witness; [2] Characteristics—The artist fills in the shapes of the facial characteristics; and [3] Rendering—The artist renders the facial form, value, and texture through shading.

How a typical session
is conducted

Actually, there probably is no such thing as a “typical” sketching session because every forensic artist tends to have his or her own set of methods. But the procedure followed by Gibson should not be too different from the others. Gibson prefers to be in a closed and quiet room, totally alone with the eyewitness.

“The witness is sitting there, facing the artist,” said Gibson. “The artist is facing the drawing board or sketch pad. In my sessions, the witness sees only the back of my drawing board so he won’t be distracted by my hands as I build the sketch. I tell them, ‘I’m going to do a rough sketch and when I am finished, I will show it to you. At that time, I will change anything you want in order to make it look as much like the person as possible.’

“While I’m sketching, I chat with the witness to make him relax and feel as comfortable as possible. Every once in awhile, I’ll ask him to look at the book to find a chin or an ear or some other feature that looks familiar. But the witness doesn’t see the sketch—so everything I get from him is from his memory of the perpetrator.”

Gibson said that the most important point of the sketching session is when the artist shows the witness the sketch for the first time and asks for changes. “That is when you have to be able to understand exactly what the witness wants you to change—and then you have to make those changes very quickly. You have to be flexible and totally submissive to whatever that witness wants. Don’t let ego get in the way.”

The final test:
Is “look like” good enough?

Everyone in law enforcement has seen hundreds (if not thousands) of the hand-drawn and computer-generated composites that are used to generate leads in cases of one sort or another. Some look good. Others do not. Are they good enough?

“If a reasonably talented sketch artist does a sketch,” said Gibson, “then 100 percent of the time it will look like the person of interest. Now, when I say like, I mean similar. Over the years, I have done likenesses that you may think are terrible as portraits—but they very quickly caused the person to get caught. They might be terrible, but they were effective. The point is very simple: If you use a forensic artist who is good at composite sketching, then you have the potential to catch the person who did the crime.”

Mancusi would probably agree with Gibson. His position on the issue is very straightforward: “Unlike all other evidence and forensic-science procedures, forensic art is not absolute,” said Mancusi. “It is almost. But I know that we can deal with almost if it does the job of catching the bad guys!”

When asked if a composite sketch is an exclusionary tool that is used when working a case, Mancusi said it is. “But a good composite sketch is not only an exclusionary tool. What we are trying to do with a composite sketch is tap in to the recognition of others, of anyone who might have a lead that would bring us to the wanted person. The investigator wants to create some leads that he might not have otherwise. Of course, 99 percent of those leads are going to be wrong. But maybe one of them will be right—and that is the one that they are trying to find.”

A request from forensic artists:
“Give us feedback!”

Mancusi said that one of the very worst things that could happen to a forensic artist would be to work in a vacuum, week after week and year after year. The artist needs to know how well—or how poorly—his sketches are doing in the real world.

“Feedback,” said Mancusi with some emphasis. “If the sketch helps, you should let the artist know. I have talked with thousands of witnesses over the years and have done countless sketches. I am always trying to interpret how well those sketches do when they are out there, circulating in the field. Feedback from the investigators will help the artist grow and get better.”

Should there be more
forensic artists?

If you agree that forensic art is a useful tool for law enforcement—one that is growing in importance and sophistication—then the quick answer to that question would probably be Yes, there should be more artists. And Gibson would definitely agree.

“The fact that there are fewer than 20 full-time forensic artists throughout the United States is deplorable in my opinion,” Gibson said. She went on to say that the number of sketches being done by full-time artists is statistically insignificant. You can look at it this way: People are paying taxes and many police departments don’t have anyone to do a sketch when their child gets raped or someone gets murdered.

“There have been about 2,000 people who have taken training in this specific area,” said Gibson. “But most are law-enforcement personnel who do this only as a sideline on their job.

“Being a sketch artist is not easy,” she said. “Sitting with an eyewitness and doing the interview and sketching a picture of the perpetrator or missing person is a very uncomfortable act for the forensic artist.

“If you can find a good artist who can manage to do that, then you should probably hire that artist.”

About the Artists
Lois Gibson is a forenic artist with the Houston (Texas) Police Department. You can view some of her work at:
Or you can send comments or inquiries to her at the following e-mail address:
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Stephen Mancusi is a forensic artist who has worked with a number of law-enforcement agencies, including the New York City (New York) Police Department. You can view some of his work at:
Or you can send comments or inquiries to him at the following e-mail address:
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"Practical Tips for Working with a Forensic Artist," written by Gary Gulick
July-August 2008 (Volume 6, Number 4)
Evidence Technology Magazine
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