Forensic art: identification through portraiture

Forensic art is inherently interdisciplinary, as it merges the expertise of professionals from various fields, such as anatomy, anthropology, and odontology, among others, to achieve its goals. This collaborative nature is vital for the creation of composite images, image modification, demonstrative evidence, and assistance in post-mortem identification, each playing a unique role in solving crimes and resolving cold cases.

Challenges in Unidentified Deceased Cases

One of the most daunting tasks for law enforcement is dealing with bodies that lack immediate means of identification. Forensic artists, leveraging their skill and understanding of post-mortem changes, employ various methods to assist in identification, aiming to connect an unknown individual to records for legal validation. The method choice depends on the corpse’s condition and the case’s specific requirements.

Areas of Specialization in Forensic Art

The application of art to forensic science, known as forensic art, is a fundamental and multifaceted tool in the investigative process, contributing to the identification, arrest, or conviction of criminals, as well as locating victims or identifying unknown deceased individuals. This field encompasses a wide range of techniques and applications, organized into four main categories: composite imagery, image modification and identification, demonstrative evidence, and aids to post-mortem reconstruction and identification. Each category plays a distinct role in bridging the gap between unknown subjects and their identification or representation in a legal context.

Composite Imagery

Composite imagery involves creating graphic images from the combination of individually described parts and is often used to generate faces of suspects or persons of interest based on eyewitness descriptions. This process can include full-body drawings or sketches of specific objects or evidence related to a case. The goal is to produce a visual representation that can be recognized by the public or law enforcement, thereby aiding in the identification and capture of suspects. Artists working in this domain rely on descriptions provided by witnesses or victims to reconstruct facial features, hairstyles, and other distinctive characteristics.

Image Modification and Identification

This category encompasses the manipulation, enhancement, comparison, and categorization of photographic images to assist in the identification process. Techniques include the age progression of missing children, updating the appearances of long-missing criminals, and enhancing low-quality surveillance images to identify people or details. Image modification can also involve adjusting photographs to reflect aging or appearance changes over time, thus aiding in recognizing subjects who have been missing or have evaded capture for extended periods.

Demonstrative Evidence

Demonstrative evidence refers to visual information used for case presentation in court, including trial presentations that may be two-dimensional (2D), three-dimensional (3D), or electronically generated. This category serves to clarify facts through visual aids, such as crime scene diagrams, incident reconstructions, or detailed illustrations of injuries sustained by victims. By providing a visual context, demonstrative evidence can help jurors and judges better understand the specifics of a case, making it an invaluable tool for conveying complex information in an accessible way.

Post-Mortem Reconstruction and Identification

This category includes methods to assist in identifying human physical remains in various conditions, from relatively intact bodies to skeletal or decomposed remains. Techniques involve post-mortem drawings, facial reconstructions from the skull (both two-dimensional and three-dimensional), and creating age-progressed images for presumed deceased missing persons. The primary goal is to assign a name to unidentified remains, thereby providing closure to families and aiding the legal process. Post-mortem reconstruction and identification require a deep understanding of anatomy, anthropology, and art to accurately represent the deceased’s likely appearance.

Each of these categories underscores the interdisciplinary nature of forensic art, blending artistic talent with scientific knowledge and investigative needs. Forensic artists often collaborate with pathologists, forensic anthropologists, dentists, and law enforcement officials, applying their expertise to create visual representations that can solve crimes, identify unknowns, and bring justice to victims and their families. The efficacy of forensic art lies in its ability to make the invisible visible, transforming abstract descriptions and skeletal remains into images that can speak volumes.

Forensic Art Techniques

Post-Mortem Drawing

This technique is used when the corpse is in a state that allows for creating a facial likeness. It requires basic knowledge of the biochemical and physical changes post-death, and the artistic work is based on photographs or direct observation of the corpse. These drawings are especially useful when bodies are intact or relatively intact, as they offer a visual means to facilitate identification.

Two-Dimensional Skull-Based Facial Reconstruction

The development by Taylor of a two-dimensional method for facial reconstruction represents a significant advancement in forensic art. This approach is particularly useful for fragile skulls, where traditional sculptural methods may not be feasible. It involves detailed preparatory work, including the application of tissue depth markers and the use of anatomical formulas to accurately reconstruct facial features over a photograph of the skull.

Three-Dimensional Skull-Based Facial Reconstruction

Three-dimensional reconstruction allows for a more realistic representation of the deceased, incorporating actual elements found with the remains, such as clothing or accessories, to enhance recognition. This method requires collaborative effort with forensic anthropologists to determine key skull features that guide the sculptural process.

Overlay Methods

Overlay serves as potential assistance in cases where skeletal remains are found with a possible match to missing persons but lack other forms of comparison. This method involves overlaying photographs of the missing person with images of the skull to identify morphological similarities, providing a basis for further investigative steps.


The role of forensic art in the identification process is indispensable, offering a unique combination of artistic skill and scientific knowledge to aid law enforcement. As this field continues to evolve, its contribution to solving crimes and uncovering the identity of unknown persons remains invaluable. The integration of various forensic disciplines with art not only enhances the investigative process but also brings a human touch to the often clinical nature of forensic science, bridging the gap between the unknown and the known.