Becoming a Sketch Artist: Job Description & Salary Information

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What are the pros and cons of a sketch artist career? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a sketch artist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Sketch Artist Career

Sketch artists create sketches of people, crime scenes, and courtrooms used by law enforcement and news media to identify suspects, solve cases and inform viewers about trials and court proceedings. Review the pros and cons below to see if becoming a sketch artist is right for you.

Pros of Being a Sketch Artist
Relatively little education required (generally 1-2 years or less)*
Opportunities to work as a fine artist**
Rewarding work (helping law enforcement, informing the public, etc.)**
Ability to use creativity**

Cons of Being a Sketch Artist
Time-sensitive work (sketches are often required fairly immediately)***
Sketch artists are no longer in high demand (due to software, cameras and budgets)****
Tough competition for jobs**
Often work in difficult situations (including death, crime or grief)****

Sources: * O*NET OnLine, ** U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, *** Smithsonian Magazine, **** Forensic Magazine.

Essential Career Info

Job Description and Duties

Sketch artists must have a great deal of artistic talent and must be able to create composite sketches, putting various pieces together to create a comprehensive whole sketch. They generally work in either law enforcement or courtroom settings.

Law enforcement sketch artists help interview witnesses and use their descriptions to build sketches of suspects or victims. They may also create sketches to represent unidentified dead bodies or missing persons for which no photograph is available. Under certain circumstances, sketch artists may also help law enforcement by using their knowledge of facial anatomy and aging to create age-progressed sketches, especially useful in missing person cases. They may also sketch crime scenes to help law enforcement officers solve crimes.

Sketch artists who work in courtroom settings create artistic representations of what happens in courtrooms. These pictures are often used by media outlets - both video and print - to represent court situations when cameras are not allowed in the courtroom. Viewers and readers use these sketches to help them understand what is happening in a trial.

Job Prospects and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted job growth for fine artists overall would be a slower-than-average 3% between 2014 and 2022. The more specific field of sketch artists has shrunk dramatically. Although no specific job growth statistics are available, job opportunities are few and far between, even for freelancers, and full-time employment is even harder to find.

Forensic Magazine reported in 2011 that the International Association for Identification - the most-recognized international accrediting organization for forensic artists - had certified fewer than 12 forensic artists in the past six years. Tight budgets and new law enforcement software have reduced the need for forensic sketch artists. Courtroom sketch artists face a similar challenge with the advent of cameras in the courtroom. A 2012 presentation by a local ABC television affiliate in Chicago reported only 14 states still prohibit cameras in the courtroom, and three of those had recently made moves to change their laws.

While the BLS has no specific wage data for sketch artists who do find steady work, it does report that 2014 median annual wages for fine artists in general were about $43,000, with the lowest 10% of earners making less than $18,260, and the highest 10% making more than $92,400 each year.

Career Skills and Requirements

No set training requirements exist for becoming a sketch artist. Job requirements vary from a high school diploma to some vocational training to an associate's or bachelor's degree. The most important skill for a sketch artist to have is artistic talent and a solid understanding of artistic concepts, including line, space, mass, color and perspective. Strong attention to detail, knowledge of human anatomy and experience as a professional artist are often preferred qualifications for sketch artist jobs.

What Employers Are Looking For

While the requirements vary, most potential employers look for established artists who can demonstrate their abilities. Computer knowledge and a certain amount of art education can also be helpful in securing a position. Below are some actual job postings for sketch artists from March 2012:

  • A logistics company in Virginia sought a graphic artist to create renderings and 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional illustrations of crime scenes and injuries to support court cases. According to the posting, ideal candidates would have expert knowledge of 3-dimensional graphics and human anatomy, as well as a bachelor's degree and at least two years of related experience, including familiarity with Adobe Design software.
  • A Texas airport needs a forensic artist to interview victims and create composite sketches of suspects and crime scenes to assist law enforcement. This position requires at least vocational training, one year of experience as an artist and basic technology skills. An associate's degree or professional certification and previous experience with law enforcement forensic art are preferred qualifications.

How to Get an Edge in the Field

Because this field has no set education requirements, getting a basic art education can really give you an edge for future employment. Formal training is available through vocational and technical schools, art schools and traditional colleges.

Many schools around the country also offer 3-to-5-day workshops and intensive training courses in specific areas of forensic art. These courses are generally hands-on and involve plenty of drawing practice. They also often include lectures and information on topics like facial anatomy, interviewing techniques, biological differences in age/race/gender, using specialized art equipment and preparing for court testimony.

Get Certified

To further set yourself apart from other forensic artists, you can earn certification as a forensic artist from the International Association for Identification (IAI). This rigorous process requires artists to attend forensic training, complete at least two years of job experience, participate as an artist in at least 30 forensic art cases, submit letters of recommendation and an application, turn in a portfolio of work and pass both a written and practical skills test. Once earned, the certification is internationally recognized and valid for five years.

Other Careers to Consider

If you are concerned about the scarcity of sketch artist jobs or just don't feel this field is quite right for you, consider a career as an animator. Animators combine drawing by hand and computer-based art to produce animated images or special effects. Like sketch artists, they need a great deal of artistic talent. Animators use more creativity, however, and are more likely to find salaried positions with studios. A bachelor's degree is often required due to the level of technical expertise needed by animators. The BLS predicted 8% job growth between 2010 and 2020. Median wages are also higher than those of fine artists, as the BLS reported the 2011 median annual wage for animators was about $61,000.

Another potential art career field to consider is graphic design. Graphic designers use art to communicate, designing magazine and newspaper layouts, advertisements, signs, logos and more. Unlike sketch artists, graphic designers do most of their artwork on computers, and most entry-level jobs require a bachelor's degree. The BLS predicted good job growth for graphic designers, with an expected 13% growth between 2010 and 2020, but competition for jobs is very stiff. The median annual wage for graphic designers is similar to that of fine artists, with the BLS reporting 2011 wages as about $45,000 per year.

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