Often, finding the identity of an unclaimed body or missing person is quite a challenge. Police can compare tattoos, fingerprints, dental records, or X-rays records to the deceased, even run DNA tests, but all of these tests take time and money. That’s where the skills of a forensic artist can come in handy. Formerly done by pencil, the advent of computers has had a big impact on this field. However, unlike Angela Montenegro on the TV show BONES, who uses an awesome 3-D holographic imaging computer to reveal a victim’s identity, real world computer composites still can’t hold a candle to a good forensic artist. Facial identifiers are at times tiny peculiarities on the face, which the computer programs fail to provide. Also, the witness usually sees profile and three-quarter views, and the vast majority of the computer programs available do not offer these options.
So just what do these artists do?
Composite Imagery: Traditionally, a “composite sketch” meant that the image was hand-drawn by an artist with pencil and paper, and a “composite image” was assembled with a computer application. With the advances in software technology, those distinctions have become blurred. Now, artists can draw directly on a computer screen with a digital pencil, and computer operators can assemble sketch-like images without ever taking an art course.
Age Progressions: When done of adults, these are for cases of endangered missing adults as well as fugitives, all in the hopes of generating renewed public interest and fresh leads for investigators. Age progressions of children come with their own special set of circumstances. Instead of lifestyle changes, artists must depict the proportional changes of a child’s growth, usually by using photos of parents or other family members.
Facial Approximations (aka craniofacial reconstruction): These are drawings and sculptures created from an unidentified human skull. These are the coldest of all cold cases. By the time a skull makes it to this kind of forensic artist, all other means of identification have been exhausted.
Post-Mortems: These are literally drawings or retouched images of unidentified people from morgue photos – dead people.