British Columbia

How forensic sketch artists are adapting technology to bring their subjects to life

As surveillance cameras proliferate, forensic sketch artists are using digital tools to make their work more efficient and accessible to witnesses, from hardware like iPads to specialized software.

From computers, tablets and digital pencils to specialized software, artists are digitizing their work

Four different composite sketches of men.
A photo illustration of sketches each made by different tools including a pencil, iPad, and software. (Derek Mealings, Carrie Stuart, Michael W. Streed)

A catalogue of mugshots sits in front of Const. Derek Mealings —  a variety of eyes, chins, mustaches and face shapes are distinguished on each page.

Referring to the catalogue images, Mealings sketches a face on his iPad … carefully shading in the eyes, nostrils, to individual hair strands.

 "I get to draw and solve crimes at the same time. It's perfect," said Mealings. 

Mealings, a forensic sketch artist with the Abbotsford Police Department, is among a niche group of artists relying on people's memories to craft sketches for law enforcement. Despite advances in camera surveillance, some artists say the need for their skills persists even if it means putting down the traditional pencil and sketchbook. 

When an investigation needs Mealings's assistance, he has a witness fill out a fact sheet describing the suspect. Afterwards, the witness looks at a catalogue of faces and picks out features that resemble the suspect. Mealings then begins a digital hand sketch and goes over any corrections with the witness. 

"We talk about lighting, how long they saw them. What was the most distinguishing feature of that person's face?" 

Mealings has recently traded in his sketch pencils, electric eraser and sketch pad for an Apple Pencil and iPad —  something he says saves him one to two hours.

Forensic artists are increasingly turning to digital media to bring their subjects to life with technology that allows them to work faster and makes it easier for witnesses to work with them.

The final results can sometimes be difficult.

Mealings says he's had instances where a witness has had a visceral reaction when seeing the final face and recalls one witness in particular. 

"I showed it to her. She just started crying because ... that's the guy who has been haunting her, basically. And to be honest, I don't think anybody was ever identified, but for me, that let me know that I did my job effectively. And I've had a couple of other recent successes that are still before the courts."

WATCH | Time lapse of Const. Derek Mealings creating a forensic sketch:

Watch a digital forensic sketch come together

5 months ago
Duration 0:31
Const. Derek Mealings with the Abbotsford Police Department hand-draws Baneet Braich's descriptions of CBC journalist Justin Mcelroy on an iPad in this time-lapse video.

More artists are opening up to a hybrid system of drawing on paper and then uploading the photo onto an iPad to work on adjustments, says Duncan Way, the forensic artist for the Ontario Provincial Police and the chair of the Forensic Art Certification Board of the International Association for Identification which certifies forensic artists. 

"I think there's a merger, and I think it's a welcome merger.

"I think it really comes down to speed and accessibility. It allows us to have tools on hand to make things go fast, to introduce colour or texture or some of those kinds of things at the, you know, at the touch of a screen, as opposed to old school rendering."

Mealings also says witnesses are more willing to ask for more improvements on a digital sketch because it's easier to make or undo the changes and have a more accurate sketch.

An iPad with a composite sketch on it and pencils and brush in front of it.
Const. Derek Mealings shows the tools used before transitioning to an iPad for forensic sketches. (Baneet Braich)

But, no matter the medium used, Way says proper training to understand the human face, lighting facial muscles and bones, is very important. And while some artists try new techniques, others stay true to traditional methods with the pencil.

For example, the RCMP has two full-time artist positions, one in B.C. and one in the Maritimes. Six RCMP employees also do sketch work on a part-time or occasional basis, says a spokesperson. 

The techniques used by RCMP artists may include sketches, specialized computer programs and, in the case of unidentified human remains, 3D scanning and clay models.

Despite technology, sketches still needed

This year, Carrie Stuart, a forensic sketch artist who trains artists in the U.S. and Canada, will be providing the option to train students on iPads for digitally assisted composites.

Despite the proliferation of surveillance cameras, forensic sketch artists are still needed as cameras can be blurry or may not be available at every crime scene, says Stuart.

Stuart says most victims or witnesses can only remember four to five facial features, which is why it's important to construct rough sketches.

A girl looks at a catalogue of faces.
CBC journalist Baneet Braich reviews a catalogue of faces to select the features that most resonate with her colleague. The selections will help forensic artist Derek Mealings draw the sketch as a way to show the process. (Pete Scobie/CBC)

"Because we're used to seeing pencil sketches or line sketches that are rough, we will look for people similar to us, and we won't focus on a particular face.

"If it's too photographic, then people aren't looking for someone who kind of looks like that. They're looking for that person."

From paper to software 

Forensic drawings can also be created with the use of specialized software. Officers can be trained to use programs that have preloaded features rather than hand-drawing them.

Michael W. Streed, a sketch artist in the United States for over 40 years, co-founded a digital software company called SketchCop in 2007.

 "I was getting a lot of calls, and I wasn't always available, and some are very serious calls. And I thought to myself, there's going to be a digital solution."

WATCH | SketchCop software is used to create a composite sketch:

He says the program is currently being used by two police departments in Ontario and more than 60 law enforcement and educational institutions globally. 

The software has a library of facial features curated and updated by Streed.

However, the software does not yet create side profiles of a face and could be improved in the future as technology advances, says Streed. 

Overall, he says, advancing technology is particularly useful in remote communities without dedicated sketch artists. 

"Having the face of an alleged criminal is something very powerful." 


Baneet Braich

CBC Journalist

Baneet Braich is a journalist with CBC News. Connect with her at or on Twitter at @Baneet_Braich