Criminal Sketch Artist: Job Description, Duties and Requirements

Sep 22, 2019

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a criminal sketch artist, or forensic artist. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about training, job duties and certification recommendations to find out if this is the career for you.

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Although a postsecondary degree is not required to become a criminal sketch artist, postsecondary training in a related field is recommended. Criminal sketch artists create a likeness of suspects and missing persons by using witness descriptions. It is common for criminal sketch artists to move into this field after working in law enforcement.

Essential Information

Criminal sketch artists aid law enforcement by using witness descriptions to create a likeness of suspects and missing persons. Full-time and freelance positions are rare, and most criminal sketch artists start out in another law enforcement agency position. Most individuals keep their current careers and perform their forensic artist duties within their agencies as needed. In addition to composite sketching, forensic artists may specialize in facial reconstruction and age progression. Formal training is recommended, as well as certification.

Recommended Education Art, psychology or graphics degree helpful, as well as knowledge of law enforcement operations, forensics and interview techniques
Other Recommendations Voluntary certification is available through the International Association for Identification (IAI)
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028) 1% for all fine artists, including painters, sculptors and illustrators
Median Salary (2018)* $49,380 for all fine artists, including painters, sculptors and illustrators

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics


Criminal sketch artists focus on facial features as they interview informants, asking them to choose from examples of noses, eyes, mouths, foreheads and chins. Unlike portrait artists, criminal sketch artists don't always have the benefit of working from a picture or a live model. Instead, they have to compile a variety of features that are often described orally. This process can involve considerable trial and error as they update their work to correspond to eyewitness reports.

Sketching is mostly done by hand, but forensic artists specializing in age progression may use computer graphic programs. Criminal sketch artists will have to work with limited and sometimes conflicting information to sketch the best possible match. Sometimes a witness only catches a partial glimpse of a suspect, so criminal sketch artists must ask the right questions and listen patiently.


No set route exists to becoming a criminal sketch artist, but formal training is recommended. An associate's or bachelor's degree in life drawing can be beneficial but is not required. Many aspiring criminal sketch artists hone their skills through workshops, artists' school courses and agency-sponsored training programs.

Experienced sketch artists typically teach workshops and artists' school courses, and agency-sponsored training courses are only available to individuals associated with a law enforcement agency. Training routes take an interactive approach and focus on facial structure, case studies, interviewing strategies, front and profile views and drawing techniques with respect to age, race and gender.

While some natural drawing talent is required, interviewing skills are just as important for obtaining reliable information. Criminal sketch artists will find a background in psychology useful, especially when dealing with confused or upset witnesses.


Practicing criminal sketch artists can seek forensic art certification through the International Association for Identification (IAI), an organization accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board. To obtain IAI certification, qualified candidates must have two years of criminal sketching experience, be endorsed by a law enforcement agency, submit a professional portfolio and pass a written exam.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

In 2018, all fine artists, including sketch artists and illustrators, earned an annual median salary of $49,380, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS predicted an employment growth rate of 1% for all fine artists from 2018 through 2028. Those sketch artists who work full time in law enforcement may find their salaries and job outlook more in line with the agencies with which they're employed.

From 2018-2028, the BLS expects the job growth for criminal sketch artists to be slower than average when compared to all occupations. Criminal sketch artists often begin working in law enforcement and move into this field. Experience in law enforcement and postsecondary training in fine arts may be an asset to those seeking a career in this field.

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