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If you’re a talented artist with an interest in crime justice and law enforcement, then you may be well suited to a career in forensic art.
Forensic artistry is instrumental in helping law enforcement agents connect the many important dots that ultimately lead to resolutions and convictions. And while it’s definitely not for the faint of heart, a forensic artist career can be incredibly fulfilling, particularly for those who are looking for unique ways to put their creative skills to work.
Is forensic art the right career choice for you? Keep reading to learn how to be a forensic artist, including what sort of training you’ll need and what the job really entails—plus how much you can expect to earn.
What is a forensic artist?
A forensic artist is a highly skilled and professionally trained individual who works alongside crime-solving teams to create visual reconstructions of suspects, victims, and crime scenes, among other things. Their work is quite varied and often involves people-facing tasks such as interviewing crime victims and witnesses to create composite sketches of suspects.
Forensic artists have a wide range of responsibilities and may be called upon at all hours of the day or night to support crime-solving efforts. Their specific tasks may include:
- Creating free-hand or digital drawings of criminal suspects based on victim and witness testimony
- Examining remains and creating sketches of what a victim may have looked like
- Creating sketches of victims or suspects based on surveillance footage and photographs
- Creating age progressions in order to help identify missing persons or suspects based on how they might look today
- Creating two- and three-dimensional reconstructions of crime scenes or evidence (such as with clay sculpting)
To succeed with a forensic artist career, you must have a varied skill set that includes the ability to draw both free-hand and digitally. You must also be comfortable and proficient when it comes to interviewing victims and witnesses, as well as presenting evidence in court. Forensic artistry is a collaborative field, so be ready to work not just with police officers and detectives but anthropologists, pathologists, and other artists, too.
Some forensic artists specialize in one or more of the tasks mentioned above—for example, age progressions or facial reconstructions. Others train in all forensic art disciplines in order to offer a full range of services to law enforcement. As you might expect, the more skills that you can offer as a forensic artist, the more opportunities you’ll have and the more money you’ll be able to make.
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While there is certainly some innate talent required in order to break into this field, you will also want to pursue a more formal forensic artist education. Forensic artistry is a serious job with serious implications, so being well trained is essential and will go a long way toward helping you establish legitimacy and get a foothold in the industry.
Generally speaking, there are two ways to become a forensic artist: get employed in some capacity in the criminal justice field (such as a crime scene technician or police officer) and then start offering artistic services when the opportunities arise, or proceed with forensic artist training and then get hired by law enforcement agencies on a freelance basis. Expect that being a freelance forensic artist will be a tougher road to follow, since you’re not working with police forces on a regular schedule.
The route you take to break into the field will obviously be a large determining factor in the specific training that you pursue. However, the more education you have, the more likely you’ll be to have doors open up to you.
Is a Forensic Science Degree Necessary?
No, but you may progress faster if you have one.
Important to note is that there isn’t a designated forensic artist degree. A forensic science degree would be the closest thing, since it will teach you how to read a crime scene and analyze evidence.
A comprehensive forensic artist education typically involves a high school diploma and an associate and/or bachelor’s degree in an artistic field, followed by more targeted training programs and courses in forensic artistry taught by the International Association of Identification (IAI). Certifications through the IAI are available as well.
The IAI designates three disciplines within forensic artistry:
- Composite art: Creating sketches of unknown suspects based on testimony and available evidence.
- Post-mortem and facial reconstruction: Using 3D imagery—including both sketches and clay—to create facial reconstructions of victims based on partially or fully decomposed human remains.
- Image modification and age progression: Altering or enhancing images to help visualize what an individual may look like now or how they may have looked in the past.
The amount of forensic artist training you will have to undergo will largely depend on whether you decide to pursue just one of these disciplines or two or more. As you gain real-world experience with these skills, you will be able to apply for IAI certifications that boost your authority in the field and illustrate your expertise to agencies.
IAI certifications require two years of professional experience as well as a written exam. Certifications must be renewed every five years, and 50 hours of continuing education will have to be completed prior to renewals.
Gaining Experience in Forensic Artistry
What does it take to become a forensic artist?
The best way to get experience as a forensic artist is to get involved with your local police force. Forensic artists with a proven background of education may be able to start working in the position right away (assuming there is a position that is available), though you could also take on another role in the hopes of later transitioning into your desired spot.
In the most likely scenario, you will gain experience by working on an employment or volunteer basis with a police force and then offering to do forensic art when the need comes up. And even once you’ve proven yourself, forensic art may remain a side duty instead of your sole job.
Depending on where you live, there may not be a huge need for forensic artistry. If you really want to practice in the field, you are probably best off working with a state or federal agency instead of your local police department—though the latter is still a good place to kick off your general law enforcement career.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates above average growth in the field of forensic science, a field that includes forensic artistry. Between 2020 and 2030, forensic scientist jobs are expected to grow 16%, with about 2,500 job openings a year.
Despite the projected growth, 2,500 openings isn’t much, especially since not all of those jobs are in the forensic arts. That means stiff competition for available positions and further support for the notion that the best way to become a forensic artist is to get a different job in law enforcement and work your way to the position from there.
Average Forensic Artist Salary
So, how much does a forensic artist make? According to Comparably, a site that aggregates salary data across a variety of fields, the nationwide average salary for a forensic artist is $67,979.
The salary of a forensic artist can and does vary by location. In San Francisco, you can earn up to 50% more than the average, while in Austin you’re likely to earn 5% less. Forensic artists with the highest salaries make as much as $345,074, but those on the low end take home only $12,993 a year.
A limited number of forensic artistry jobs makes this a competitive field, but it still might be worth pursuing if it’s something that you are truly passionate about.
Keep in mind that there is more to a successful career in forensic art than just drawing composite sketches or facial reconstructions. You will almost certainly need to work another job within law enforcement either prior to or in addition to being a forensic artist, and you may need to branch out beyond your local police department into state or federal agencies.
To increase your chances of securing a forensic artist job, look into IAI training programs and certifications. These will provide you with a wealth of knowledge that you can put to work alongside your artistic skills and will also help you hone in on exactly what you would like to do within the field.
Working in law enforcement in any capacity can be both mentally and physically demanding. As a forensic artist, you must be ready to work whenever and wherever you’re needed, and often on short notice. But if you’ve got the skills, the desire, and the temperament, then give forensic artistry a shot. You’ll gain valuable criminal justice experience along the way, with the potential to build a career that you enjoy and that helps keep your community safe.
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