Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Art

Where Art Meets Crime

Forensic art is the utilization of artistic methods and techniques to aid legal procedures.  It's a way to present visual information that aids with missing-person cases and with the identification and apprehension of criminals.  For example, a composite portrait taken from several eyewitnesses at a crime scene can provide law enforcement with a fairly good portrait of the person they're looking for.

It may also be the case that an artist is asked to alter a photo to accommodate the progression of age, to show what someone might look like with a disguise, or indicate changes like weight gain or plastic surgery.

Composite of a suspect in a kidnapping
Composite of a suspect in a kidnapping (Karen T. Taylor)

According to Karen T. Taylor, Forensic Art and Illustration, there are four categories of forensic art:

  1. Composite imagery  (faces or evidence from descriptions)
  2. Image modification and image identification (enhancement and comparisons)
  3. Demonstrative Evidence (for court)
  4. Reconstruction and postmortem aids  (identifications)

We'll look at specific cases in the following sections, but first let's examine what's involved in the blending of art and science. 

For starters, artists need to know the specific scientific angles that will be used to investigate a case, such as how anthropologists work with bones to estimate such things as the height, weight, gender, and race of a set of bones found in a ditch.  They may also have to know a bit of psychology in order to figure out what modifications need to be made for updating photographs.  If working on drawings from skulls, they'll be familiar with postmortem changes, and they may also need to find out what lawyers require for using visual representations in court.  If they're asked to draw teeth, for example, they need knowledge of odontology.

Some artists specialize while others offer a range of skills.  Some are on staff in larger police departments with constant need, while others are hired on a freelance basis as things come up.

Some of the ways artists join the legal process include:

  1. Courtroom sketches for illustration of cases
  2. Wanted poster sketches
  3. Visual demonstrations of investigative techniques
  4. Drafting a properly measured sketch of a murder scene
  5. Portraying suspects for publication in newspapers
  6. Three-dimensional and two-dimensional facial reconstruction
  7. Photo enhancement for age progression
  8. Missing person posters
  9. Medical drawings from autopsies
  10.  Developing computerized renderings for facial and body positions
  11.  Superimposition techniques
  12.  Enhancement or clean-up of videos

Forensic art has been used in many cases, from the postmortem drawings of one of Jack the Ripper's victims to courtroom sketches of Lizzie Borden to identifying the remains of Joseph Mengele.  The most familiar activity for the forensic artist is the composite drawing; so let's see how that has evolved.

Two-dimensional facial reconstruction
Two-dimensional facial reconstruction

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