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Sketch Artist: How to Become a Professional Sketch Artist

Learn how to become a sketch artist. Research the education requirements, training, certification, and experience you will need to start a career in sketching.

Should I Become a Sketch Artist?

The term 'sketch artist' refers, in the broadest sense, to an artist who creates likenesses of subjects using tools such as pencil, charcoal and pastels. The term is sometimes employed to refer to artists who work for the criminal justice system. These types of sketch artists, also called forensic artists, produce drawings of suspected criminals and work in courtrooms drawing scenes during trial proceedings. There are only a handful of full-time forensic artists in the country; most forensic artists are freelancers. The competition for many types of freelance art positions is very intense.

There is no formal training required for sketch artists or forensic artists - most professionals in this field have top-notch natural drawing abilities honed through practical experience. However, college classes in art (specifically drawing) are helpful; forensic artists might also benefit from classes in facial reconstruction or expression. A portfolio is often essential for securing work.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Associate or bachelor's degree (not required)
Degree Field Fine art
Experience Drawing experience, portfolio
Licensing and Certification Voluntary certification available from the International Association for Identification's (IAI) Forensic Art Certification Board
Key Skills Artistic ability, creativity, manual dexterity, customer service skills
Salary $58,250 is the median annual salary for artists and related workers (2014)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Obtain an Art Degree

Although fine artists, including all kinds of sketch artists, don't necessarily need a degree to find work, the BLS did state that artists with significant training were more likely to get hired. Art degree programs at nearly all levels include coursework in drawing, three-dimensional design, sculpting and computer graphic design. Bachelor's degree programs provide significantly more coursework than associate degree programs.

Success Tip:

  • Build a portfolio. Fine art degree programs provide the opportunity for students to begin building their portfolios, which they can add to as they create new work. A portfolio showcases the artist's best work and is essential for any artist looking for employment.

Step 2: Continuing Education

Since many sketch artists work for police and forensic units, they often have to draw suspects based on descriptions given by witnesses. Taking courses in facial reconstruction can help artists learn to create more accurate portrayals. There are also classes offering training on age progression, which can be useful to sketch artists working on cases involving kidnapped children. Classes in facial expression are helpful for re-creating courtroom scenes. These types of classes may be hard to find at colleges and universities; they are generally offered by individuals or small companies that cater to forensic artists.

Step 3: Improve Interpersonal Skills

Sketch artists working for the police need to be able to talk with traumatized witnesses in order to help them recall what a suspect looked like. Artists need to be able to set people at ease and know which questions to ask when interviewing them. Reading books is one way to study and improve these skills. The International Association for Identification's (IAI) Forensic Art Certification Board, which administers voluntary certification for forensic sketch artists, provides a reading list on its website that includes recommendations for books on interviewing witnesses and crime victims.

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