Sunday, November 30, 2008


I feel sorry for police sketch artists because they're snubbed by other artists. Artsy-type artists simply can't see the art in the kind of flat, symmetrical faces that you see on wanted posters (above). That's too bad because the artists who do the posters are often more skilled than you'd think, they just work in a medium that's deliberately designed to look clunky.

This (above) is, believe it or not, the most useful kind of police sketch. It's not pretty, but it wasn't meant to be. It's intentionally crude, emphasizing only the few bits of information provided by the witness, and adding nothing. It gives the officer on the street lots of room for interpretation.

What you don't want is a sketch that's too specific (above). It may look good, but a face that's too detailed will lead to a search for that exact face, and no other, which is a mistake. It's impossible to derive a true likeness from the limited information given by witnesses. An artist has to resist the temptation to fill in a drawing with made-up detail in order to make the sketch look pretty.

A witness description that says, "He was a blonde with wire-frame glasses" is almost useless, since glasses can be discarded and hair can be dyed. A trained police artist listens for details that are hard to fake, like the shape of the jaw, the cheekbones, and the size of the eyes, nose and ears. Sometimes glasses are only sketched lightly and hair is made to deliberately look fake so the viewer can imagine the face without it.

A good police artist is a good interviewer. He knows the questions to ask which will spotlight the details he's interested in.

It's predicted that computer programs will gradually replace sketch artists, but it's been slow in coming. That's because computer sketches are too specific. You end up looking for that exact face to the exclusion of other similar types. The common programs are Faces 4.0 and Smith & Wesson's Identi-Kit 6.0.


patrick said...

haha, I can't even tell if that last one is supposed to be a man or a woman.

Bitter Animator said...

Oooh! The Smith & Wesson software website has a blog coming soon. You should get in contact and see if they'd like a guest blogger. Or if perps would like to submit their identikit pics to Love Nerds.

Anonymous said...

One of the last bastions of 2D drawing gets replaced by cheesy computer software. There is no skill that cannot be negated by technology. This will continue as long as small minds rule the marketplace.

David Germain said...

Hey, I drew one of those once.

I was working as a parking lot attendant about 4 years ago. One guy had driven down and insisted on paying me $7.50 for parking (even though the all day price was $7.00). I couldn't find the slip of paper so I had no choice but to pocket that money. The next day I found out a car had been stolen from the lot. I recognized the license plate. It was that car that stopped to pay yesterday. Since he did that, I got more than a good look at him and therefore was able to make a decent sketch of him which I submitted to the police right after my shift. I hope it helped catch that guy.
Incidentally, the car he stole had a monthly parking pass, so he really just paid me $7.50 for nothing.

oppo said...

Okay, I was wronbg about the puppets.

That copmputer generated police sketch is the real creep.

trevor thompson said...

Computers. They have the potential to do so much good, and yet, all it ends up doing in most cases is contribute to our mounting pile of countrywide laziness.

"I open up the file, add hair, and certain shapes for the eyes, and next thing I know... the character is created and I'm ready to animate!!!"

- A Real Animation Student Who Hated To Draw

- trevor.

Kelly Toon said...

did you happen upon this unfortunate juxtaposition?

Lester Hunt said...

As usual, Eddie, very interesting. But I more than suspect that "art" is really not the right word for what these guys do. After all, they are required to avoid two things that seem necessary features of art: self-expression, and imagination. Also, if a computer program can do it, that is another reason to doubt that it is artistic. Also, note that the one drawing that you pointed out is not a good police sketch is also the artistically best of the bunch.

Lester Hunt said...

Kelly, that link was hilarious. Officer! There's the man! That's him! That's him!

Anonymous said... why I hate webcomics and internet culture (oasises like this blog excepted), wont it be great when our brains are all hooked up to a giant cosmic computer and we aren't individuals anymore!?

Theres a really unsettling undercurrent of anti-individuality to the sort of people who are obsessed with computers and the future of technology. I dont want to be connected to the sort of people who argue under articles at

Anonymous said...

p spector said...

Hey, that's my Uncle Phineas up there!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Anon: Thanks for the great links! I have a question to ask the Yahoo science fans: a normally clockwise rotating sprinkler head is placed in a pool and the water turned on. Does it rotate clockwise or counter-clockwise, and why? The question is stolen from the Feynman autobiography.

Lester: Caught! I was aware that I might have used the wrong words when I typed them, but I didn't think anyone would notice.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Kelly: Haw! That's hilarious! Did that appear on TV or was it photoshopped in for a joke?

Bitter: A blog just for police artists!? Amazing!

Anonymous said...

I love police sketches...especially the courtroom ones...I collect them! They are a special brand of art all their own..kinda clunky, yet they capture and essence.

Funny how we still use artists for courtroom drama. Why not just hire photographers?


Elliot Cowan said...

I have cut and pasted the article below.
It's related to catching robbers with cartoons and is therefore vaguely related to this topic.
Also worth noting is that the cartoonist involved was 82 at the time and died at the very end of 2008.

Cartoon Helps Police Identify Burglar in Australia
By E&P Staff
Publication: Editor & Publisher
Date: Wednesday, January 18 2006

Thieves should avoid cartoonists.

A robber stole the bicycle owned by the grandson of 82-year-old Australian cartoonist Bill "Weg" Green, according to a story in Australia's The Age newspaper. But Green got a good look at the burglar before he fled.

Police officers subsequently visited Green, and they were initially skeptical when the cartoonist offered to draw a picture of the thief.

Fifteen minutes later, the burglar was picked up. "After we had a look at this gentleman in the back of the divvy van, we just couldn't believe how much of a likeness it was to the picture that 'Weg' had drawn," said Senior Constable Aaron Roche, as quoted in The Age. "If anyone ever says 'can I draw the offender,' I'll be handing them a pencil pretty quickly."

Green added: "I have an affinity for faces and I can remember faces even hours after."

SMEAR said...

David Germain is a rat.