Sketch Artist: Career and Salary Facts

Research what it takes to become a sketch artist. Learn about job duties, education requirements, job outlook, and salary to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Art degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Sketch Artist?

A sketch artist is an illustrator who produces two-dimensional sketches of their subjects. They may use a variety of different mediums for their artwork, such as charcoal or ink, and they may work in a wide range of fields. For example, they may work as a police sketch artist where they'll work with individuals who witnessed crimes and ask them questions about the suspect. Based on the information, they will adjust their drawing to the likeness of the suspect and provide the police with the drawing to try to identify the suspect. Sketch artists may also work as street vendors and draw images of people who pay for the image. Additional career information is outlined in the table below.

Education Required Postsecondary training is common
Education Field of Study Fine art, studio art, forensic science
Job Growth (2014-2024) 3% for all fine artists, including illustrators, painters and sculptors*
Median Salary (2015) $46,460 for all fine artists, including illustrators, painters and sculptors*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Will My Job Duties Be as a Sketch Artist?

A sketch artist draws people for a living. You'll use pencil, pastels or charcoal to create likenesses of human subjects. Some sketch artists create drawings for a subject's enjoyment, but others are employed by the media or law enforcement agencies. News media sketch artists often draw courtroom scenes where photography is banned, while law enforcement sketch artists, also known as forensic artists or police sketch artists, assist in the identification of suspects and victims.

As a forensic artist, you'll use witness descriptions of suspects to create images that law enforcement can use to help identify and apprehend individuals. You'll work closely with a witness or victim, asking about the suspect's skin tone, eyes, lips and hairline. Some police departments utilize computer programs that allow witnesses to create their own depictions, but a trained forensic sketch artist may get a more detailed, accurate depiction by interviewing the witness.

Sketch artists typically aren't used to solve small crimes cases because of the cost and the time it takes to render a depiction. Instead, you'll likely work on major crime cases that involve victims. Some forensic artists create post-mortem sketches to help identify victims. In these cases, you'll rely on bone structure for your drawing or reconstruct a victim's features using clay. You might also work with anthropologists to determine the person's age, race or sex. Additionally, you may construct diagrams of crime scenes or create age-progression drawings for missing children or fugitives.

Do I Need a Degree?

There's no set path to becoming a sketch artist, but a background in art is useful. Forensic artists may need a bachelor's degree in art, forensics or both. Undergraduate degree programs in fine arts and studio art offer courses in drawing and art fundamentals. Life drawing courses, in particular, may teach you how to render human facial features.

You may also pursue a double major in forensic science and art. If you already have an art background, you might consider taking a class from a professional forensic artist at local colleges or universities or via a law enforcement agency such as the FBI. Some police or sheriff's departments operate detective colleges or homicide schools that offer programs designed to help prepare future forensic artists.

What Might My Salary Be?

Salary data is scarce for sketch artists, and how much you earn will depend upon where you work and whether you're employed full-time or on a freelance basis. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), fine artists, a broad category that includes illustrators like sketch artists, earned a median annual wage of $46,460 in May 2015 (www.bls.gov).

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Photographers and illustrators are professionals who are comparable to sketch artists. No formal postsecondary training is required to work as a photographer or illustrator, although an associate's or bachelor's degree may be an asset in both professions. Photographers use photographic equipment to capture a visual representation of people, places or things. Illustrators use their artistic talents to produce a visual image of a person, place or thing. Photographers, illustrators and sketch artists all produce visual images. They may produce images of people, objects or other items. Photographers and illustrators are more likely to produce material that will be used in a book or advertisement or other printed material, although they may be hired to produce a single image for a client, like sketch artists.

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