How to Become a Forensic Artist

forensic artist

If you’ve ever watched a crime drama on television, you may have seen the police use a sketch of the criminal to help alert the public and apprehend the criminal. Forensic artists or forensic sketch artists are the talented individuals who create these sketches. Do you enjoy drawing?

Does the idea of using your talent to help law enforcement appeal to you? If so, you may want to investigate a career as a forensic artist. Wondering how to become a forensic artist? This article has everything you need to know about forensic artists, including not just how to become a forensic artist but also career information and what this job entails.

What is a Forensic Artist?

A forensic artist is a professional artist who does drawings or sketches of people, places, or items. They are often called sketch artists. Some do the sketches freehand, while other artists use computerized drawing software. They also draw reconstructions of a crime scene or may add enhancements to an image drawing.

In most cases, the work of forensic artists is used by law enforcement to aid them in identifying and capturing suspects or criminals. Forensic artists may work directly for law enforcement, and others may freelance and work for more than one agency. Some choose to do both.

Career Outlook

With the rising rate of crime, forensic artists are called upon more and more to help find criminals and solve criminal cases. These professionals are in demand. Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not provide career information specifically for forensic artists, they do provide it for police officers and detectives as well as for craft and fine artists.

Both careers fit into the forensic artist category. Keep in mind that career outlook also depends on the individual’s professional background and education. Police and detectives are growing at a rate of only three percent, which is slower than all other occupations. There are expected to be about 20,600 new police and detective jobs created between 2021 and 2031. The highest number of police and detectives employed is in California as of 2021.

Craft and fine artists, on the other hand, are expected to see a six percent job growth during that same decade. About 2,900 new jobs should be created for this position by 2031. Because so many forensic artists are self-employed, the demand for these professionals may be higher than predicted by the BLS. California is the state with the highest number of craft and fine artists employed.


The salary for forensic artists can vary because they can work in various capacities. The BLS reports that police officers and detectives earned an average annual wage of $65,790 or $31.63 in 2021, while craft and fine artists earned about $38,150 or $18.34 per hour. While these are averages, there are factors that can affect the potential earnings.

An individual with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree will typically earn a higher wage. A forensic artist with years of experience will also have a better wage than someone just starting their career. The location also plays a big part in wages. To give you an example, here are the five states where police and detectives earn the highest salaries followed by the five states where craft and fine artists earn the highest wages.

States with the highest wages

States Mean annual wage
New Jersey$90,520

States with the lowest wages

StatesMean annual wage
New York$64,700

How to Become a Forensic Artist

Becoming a forensic artist is a step-by-step process.

  • High school diploma
  • Undergraduate degree
  • Professional forensic artist training program
  • Gain clients
  • Gain experience
  • Certification

The candidate should have a high school diploma. High school students who know they want to become forensic artists should take courses in art, graphic design, physiology, anatomy, and computer science if possible. Taking a second language course might not be a bad idea either. This will come in very handy when interviewing witnesses whose main language is not English.

Aspiring forensic artists are encouraged to earn a two-year associate degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree in fine art or criminal justice. Students may choose a major in fine arts with a minor in criminal justice or vice versa. The forensic art training program requires completing courses like forensic facial imaging, post-mortem imagery, age-progressed imagery, and composite drawing. If students can take any of those courses while still in high school, this will give them a real advantage when they’re actually in the forensic art training program.

Completing an IAI-approved forensic art training program is probably the best thing the individual can do for himself or herself. The program must be at least 40 hours, and it must be taught by an IAI-certified instructor. The student’s curriculum must be in one of the three major areas.

  • Composite Art
  • Facial Recognition
  • Age Progression

The student may specialize in one of the three areas or choose to complete all three. Once the student completes the training program, he or she can begin building their clientele. This can be done by contacting local law enforcement agencies and legal professionals and informing them of availability.

Gaining experience in this profession is probably one of the most important things an aspiring forensic artist can do for his or her career. The more experience the forensic artist has, the better the employment and wage opportunities.

Day in the Life

A day in the life of a forensic artist can vary depending on if the individual works for law enforcement or as a freelance sketch artist. However, regardless of where the artist works, he or she does sketches, reconstructions, and enhancements either by hand or with computerized drawings.

Forensic artists are generally defined as artists who use specific artistic techniques to identify, apprehend, or convict a criminal. In a perfect world, law enforcement has actual photographs to help them identify and capture criminals. That’s not always the case. Many times, law enforcement has to rely on the descriptions given by witnesses. This is where forensic artists can be so valuable.

They sit down with witnesses and make facial composite sketches based on the witness’s description. Forensic arts may also be required to go to a crime scene to create sketches of different items as well as making models and scale diagrams of a crime scene. They perform many duties throughout their day.

  • They use 2-D and 3-D computer programs to recreate decomposed, skeletal, or mutilated images
  • They create sketches of partially or fully composed remains.
  • They prepare chart evidence boards, diagrams, and 3-D reconstructions of crime scenes for judicial procedures and court hearings.
  • They make age progression sketches of missing persons and crime suspects.
  • They alter or enhance surveillance pictures.
  • They prepare displays, exhibits, and reports for court hearings and cases.
  • They must also make sure their drawings and sketches are properly stored because they may need to be used in court at a later date.

Licensure, Certifications, and Continuing Education

Forensic artists are not required to be licensed, but they should be certified by an accredited agency. The International Association for Identification offers the Forensic Artist Certification. Earning this credential requires more than just having a degree or passing an examination.

When obtaining IAI certification, the artist can earn certification in all three areas of concentration: facial recognition, composite imaging, and image enhancement/age progression. One thing to remember is that even if the individual only becomes certified in one area, he or she must still be knowledgeable in all three areas.

Here are the requirements to be eligible for the Forensic Artist Certification.

  • Must have completed 40 hours or more of related, lectures, workshops, and program training
  • Must have completed 80 hours or more of IAI-approved forensic art training
  • Must have two years or more of forensic artwork experience
  • Must have examples of at least 30 forensic art sketches that include composites, age progressions, and reconstructions
  • Must also have a portfolio demonstrating their different forensic art techniques, and ten or more should have been created for law enforcement cases.

Additionally, the applicant must provide the IAI with a letter from the applicant’s employer indicating the following.

  • The applicant’s status or rank in the agency
  • The number of forensic art cases the applicant has done for the agency
  • The applicant’s date of appointment
  • A report stating the applicant’s experience working for this agency

When all the requirements are met for the IAI, the candidate must pass a practical test and a written exam. The written exam consists of multiple-choice questions and is a two-part test. The candidate must answer all questions on the first part and at least 80 percent on the second part to pass the examination.

If the candidate does not pass the entire test, he or she can reschedule the test for six months. The practical test requires the candidate to submit a specific number of forensic art images or drawings.

IAI certification is good for five years. IAI indicates that there are two types of recertification: basic recertification and continuous status. To maintain the basic certification, the individual must complete another 20 hours of combined workshops, lectures, and short program training as well as a 40-hour training program.

The candidate must also submit at least 75 forensic sketches use for investigation cases. Additionally, the candidate must submit five sketches provided to law enforcement that resulted in a “hit”.

  • For the continuous status recertification, the candidate must have been a forensic artist for at least ten years and must have been recertified at least once.
  • The forensic artist must have attended at least two conferences hosted by the IAI in the past five years.
  • At least 350 forensic art images must have been completed in the ten-year span.
  • The candidate must have written forensic artist material for a related agency.
  • The candidate must have used his or her forensic art knowledge and expertise as a lecturer or educator.

Continuous status recertification is not automatically guaranteed. The applicant must go before the certification board and get approval.