Case Enhancement through Forensic Art: Methods for Identifying Unknown Persons

Kenneth R. Lang, Ph.D.

One of the most overlooked but highly useful investigative tools for a death investigation is the talents of an excellent forensic artist. Often, investigators see the need arise for the assistance of an artist when a witness can describe an unidentified suspect. We’ve all seen the composite sketch of a wanted subject on a news broadcast seeking to place a name with the face. But the reality is that an artist can be used in a myriad of mediums to enhance any investigation.

Foremost, investigators should realize the variety of forensic art mediums effective in an investigation. Not only can artists complete composite sketches of unknown subjects, but many artists can complete age-enhancement drawings, video-enhancement sketches, post-mortem drawings, and two- and three-dimensional skull reconstructions. Let’s explore each of these mediums and see how they can enhance a death investigation.

Composite sketch. Typically, composite sketches are pencil drawings on paper of facial features as recalled by a witness or victim (Figure 1). A composite takes an average artist about one to three hours to complete depending on the artist’s skill set. Although some artists use other mediums such as charcoal or pastels, most use pencil and paper to complete their sketches. How the artist takes the witnesses’ memory of a subject and conveys it to paper varies. Some artists will interpret the description by the witness and sketch when other artists will have the witness use a facial catalog to select facial features to draw the composite.

As a composite artist completes their sketch, they will often incorporate the witness into the process by allowing them to watch the drawing unfold on paper. A light sketch is generally produced first to capture all the necessary features. Once the artist is comfortable that the witness is satisfied with the drawn features the artist will then add shading to bring the sketch to life. If the witness is pleased with the sketch the artist will make a digital image and preserve the drawing as evidence. The digital image becomes a working image of the sketch, implemented in a variety of press release options, including wanted posters and news media releases.

A composite sketch is not only relevant to identifying unknown suspects, but investigators should consider using a composite sketch whenever any unidentified person of interest surfaces in a case.  

Age-enhancement drawings. Building off the concepts of a composite sketch, an artist trained in facial anatomy and age-enhancement processes can take a known photograph of a subject and age progress them to an older age. For instance, an artist could take a wanted felon, who has remained at large for the past ten years and age-progress their last booking photo to depict what they may look like today.

Another area of age-enhancements surrounds that of missing persons, most commonly children. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children currently take on these responsibilities, using digital technology to create progressed images. What is needed to complete these age-progressions are known photographs of the child’s biological parents at the age in which the investigator wishes depict the person. Artists can use similar artistic concepts in cases involving missing adults who are missing for a long duration of time.    

Video-enhancement sketches. While many businesses and organizations use high-definition video surveillance cameras for security, sometimes the placement of the cameras or lighting produces unfavorable images. Depending upon the experience of the artist and the quality of the captured image, some artists can complete a composite sketch based on the image, taking the inferior image and bringing about some clarity to the facial characteristics. Artists achieve this process by taking the surveillance images, examining visible features, and interpreting facial characteristics based on anatomical knowledge. Investigators should heavily consider the detective’s ability to release the original surveillance image to local media. Though obscured photos hamper an investigation, identifications have been made based on the subject’s physique, stature, clothing, and other distinctions.   

Post-mortem drawings. On occasion, death investigators work cases in which the victim is unidentified because the victim’s facial features were compromised (e.g., decomposition, extensive injuries, animal scavenging, etc.). Like the age-enhancement process, the completion of any post-mortem drawing is dependent upon the artist’s knowledge of facial anatomy and their ability to reference any existing facial features to render the composite drawing. For victims who have sustained extensive injuries, the artist’s skill set is vital to a successful post-mortem drawing. For instance, some artists render port-mortem drawings (Figure 2b) so that investigators do not display a morgue photo (Figure 2a) of an unidentified victim. Other investigators will utilize these options when victims have sustained gunshot wounds to the head that has caused extensive damage to the face.  

Two-dimensional and Three-dimensional Skull Reconstructions. The last area of forensic art centers on the need for a two- or three-dimensional skull reconstruction. Different regions of the country have different climates, which vary in temperature and humidity and affect how decomposition occurs with a body. In the Mid-Atlantic region—a humid climate—decomposition occurs at a slower rate than that of the Southwest region where a body can be skeletonized more quickly. Nonetheless, a skull reconstruction can be beneficial in cases were decomposition is extensive, or skeletonization is present.

Whether utilizing a two- or three-dimensional skull reconstruction both start with the artist receiving a clean skull, mounting it, and placing tissue depth markers (Figure 3a) on specific locations. Once the markers are in place, the artist photographs the skull to generate a life-sized image to be used to create a composite image (two-dimensional) or the artist will place the clay on the skull and sculpt the face (three-dimensional, Figure 3b).

            As we can see, the talents of a forensic artist are far-reaching than that of merely generating a composite of a potential suspect. Using a forensic artist in a death investigation can not only help to identify a victim or possible suspect, but can also be used to identify potential witnesses, enhance vague surveillance photos, or age-progress a long-sought suspect. Regardless of your need, forensic artists are capable of enhancing your investigation.


Kenneth R. Lang, Ph.D. is a retired homicide detective, assistant professor at Glenville State College, editorial board member for the Internet Journal of Restorative Justice, and author of several true crime books. For more information, visit