Using Art to Solve Crime: The Top 10 Techniques Used By Forensic Artists

Using Art to Solve Crime: The Top 10 Techniques Used By Forensic Artists

Since 1981, I’ve been a forensic artist—an amazing feat since I’m only . . .um. . . well, younger than that. In those years, I’ve seen some shifts and trends, but some things have never changed. Despite the overwhelming prevalence of computers in almost every other field, they have never been able to replace a trained forensic artist. Artists have an amazing toolbox of techniques we use to gather the information we need to help solve crime.

Before we look at a selection of these techniques, let’s define forensic art. Forensic art is any art pertaining to law enforcement or legal proceedings. This can cover everything from the courtroom artist to facial reconstruction of a skull; from demonstrative evidence—courtroom exhibits—to composite sketches.

Now that we are on the same page, let’s learn about some of the tools a composite artist will use.

  1. The pencil. Any forensic artist worth her weight in graphite knows the power of the lowly pencil and a sketchpad. Law enforcement would love a photographic image of the suspect, but all we have to work with is memory…and memory is faulty. The more the image looks perfect, the more imperfect it is for helping to identify a suspect. We want the drawing to just suggest a likeness and eliminate those that are not similar.
  2. Now that we brought up the subject of memory, a forensic artist needs to understand how memory works. The average witness will remember between four and five facial features. When they describe the person they saw, they will do so from their strongest memory to their weakest memory, from most important to least important. We listen carefully to the order of facial features.
  3. Whole vs. Parts. We don’t look at faces as individual parts, although a particularly outstanding nose or Marty Feldman eyes might catch our attention. We will remember the face as a whole, with the proportions of the face an unacknowledged part of that. Forensic artists prefer to use reference photographs where the whole face is viewed.
  4. Reference Photos. Notice my clever segue into reference photos? Forensic artists should never assume they know what a witness means by “weird lips” or “Roman nose.” Those are words that have meaning to the witness but don’t help us. We bring reference photos in the form of facial identification books or booking photos to our composite sessions.
  5. If there is a curse word unique to this field, it’s average. Give us skin worthy of the craters of the moon, a nose big enough to have a separate zip code, more chins than. . . well, you get the drift. Average isn’t fun, isn’t distinctive, and—bottom line—average is boring.
  6. Witnesses don’t remember ears unless they are huge. This is both good news and bad news. The good news is the artist doesn’t have to master drawing ears. Just nail the shape and shading of one good ear and they are set. The bad news is that ears are as distinctive as fingerprints—and would greatly aid in identification.
  7. Cognitive Interviewing. I chuckle every time the words cognitive interview are mentioned with a hushed voice by one of the characters on Criminal Minds. Gasp! They make it sound like a root canal or secret rite. It’s just an interview where the witness is asked to recreate the context of the event. There’s a reason for this. Have you ever seen people at an airport, recognized them, and have no clue why you know them? That’s because they are in a different context from your initial meeting. Same thing happens when you walk into a room and are clueless as to why you went in there. You usually return to where you were and (eureka!) you remember. You’ve recreated the context.
  8. Facial Proportions. Composite artists do understand what an average face looks like (even if we hate to draw it. See #5.) In the average adult male face, the eyes are located halfway between the top of the head and the chin, the width of an eye fits between the eyes, and the opening of the mouth is one-third the distance between the nose and chin. I’d share all the average measurements with you, but then I’d have to kill you.
  9. Establish rapport. Having just threatened to kill you, I’d like to talk about establishing rapport. We need to get witnesses to easily talk to us, share what they know, and be willing to work with us over several hours. We have to find common ground. That’s not so easy if you have absolutely nothing in common with them. Talking about the weather only goes so far. I like to start by asking them if they had any trouble finding the police department (where I usually meet with them). If they say “no,” I can comment that they must have lived in the area for some time (note here: it can also mean they’ve been arrested, but we don’t want to go there). If they say “yes,” then I can ask if they are new in town. Either way, it’s a nonthreatening way to get witnesses to talk to me.
  10. Okay, I’ll admit I’m a tad harsh on computers. For composite purposes, I view computers as ridiculously expensive pencils with a huge learning curve and built-in obsolescence. They do, I grudgingly admit, serve a purpose: facilitating communication. If a witness describes something that I’m not familiar with, I can look it up. Many years ago, I had a witness describe a specific jacket to me. I wrote down his exact words: “A white socks jacket.” That’s what I heard. What I thought was, How do you make a jacket out of socks? And why would you want to?

So I’m not a sports fan. A computer or cell phone with access to the Internet would have been useful.

There you have it. Ten techniques and tools the forensic artist uses. You do not want to cross tracks with a forensic artist. They live by this motto: I have a pencil, and I’m not afraid to use it.

Carrie Stuart Parks is an internationally known forensic artist and author. She travels internationally, teaching forensic art to Secret Service and FBI agents and law enforcement agencies. Her new novel, Portrait of Vengeance (HarperCollins/Thomas Nelson), releases Aug. 8, 2017.

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