Solving Murders and Sculpting Skulls, Interview with a Forensic Artist

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Fri, November 2nd, 2012

Barbara Anderson has spent more than two decades working as a forensic artist for police departments in California. When a body is found rotted beyond recognition it is Anderson who must put the pieces together and produce an image or mold of what that person’s face looked like in life.

Digital Dying recently spoke with Barbara about the secrets bones hold, the best way to build a face and just what she learned at the body farm.

Give me a rough job description?

I do crime scene investigating. I have seen people dismembered and chopped up into bits and pieces. I have seen corpses that animals have gotten into. I have seen horrific homicides. I spend more time in the morgue than I do with living people. At a crime scene, first I’ll take photographs. I am looking for anything that tells me who this person was in life. I look at the personal effects if they’re still available. I see their clothes and jewelry. If there are hair samples I look at them. I like to actually see the hair texture. You have to find what’s unique to this person. If all the bones are available I do a full examination. I look for cracked ribs, arthritis and things like, if you put their legs together is one leg shorter than the other. It’s remarkable how much you can learn from the bones.

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What’s your process like in the lab?

If I’m called in it means other investigators have already failed to identify the body, so it can be many months later. I go into the morgue and really look at the body. The first thing is to photograph really well and do sketches, because that won’t hurt the bone. I do a lot of measurements, a lot of examinations. I print out my pictures so I am surrounded by all these different angles of bones. If the agency I’m working with wants a clay reconstruction I do a clay reconstruction right on the skull. If the skin has decomposed too much you have to remove all the soft tissue and start from scratch. I prefer the European method, they reconstruct the face from the bones out, first putting the muscles, then the glands, etcetera. I think it’s a much more lifelike way of doing it.

Tell me more on how to turn a rotting skull into a living face?

I build the face back out, bones first, then muscle and glands, then skin. I use oil based clay because it takes me a while to finish a case and water based clays dry out. I use little markers that tell me how far to go out from the bone and where to stop with the skin. These markers are based on years of research on cadavers of people from different cultures. The thickness of soft tissue on the face will be different for an Asian person than it is for a European or an African person, so you want to make sure you use the proper thickness. I pay attention to the unit to unit relationship for each feature of the face, the distance between the eyes, the eyes to the nose, the nose to the mouth. Age and sex are also important. Those nice fleshy cheeks you had as a teenager get dragged down. Putting the skin on is the neat part, you roll the clay out nice and thin, then take these sheets of skin and carefully layer them in a certain sequence. Then, lightly smooth the seams together, half the face first, then the other half. This is the definitive moment. Now, I actually meet the person for the first time and see what they really looked like in life.

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What specifically do bones tell you about the living person?

The nose is the most accurate, you look at the shape and the way it juts out. The tops of the teeth are affected by a person’s diet. If the teeth are stunningly beautiful it’s a good indication of wealth, a corpse’s overall appearance will be more polished if someone had money. Small little breakages can tell you if someone has broken a bone long before they died or if it’s fresh. There’s a lot of ancestral information you get from the skull, whether there’s more European ancestry or more Asian ancestry. Different parts of the face can express different traits. So many people are mixed race now. The nose might be of one particular ancestral background and the eyes might be of another. I look at the bones in bits and segments to make sure I’m not missing something. But a lot of times what you see on the bones may not come through to the skin, so you don’t want to go too far. One thing is you’ll never be able to tell the person’s eye color, the eye is all soft tissue. For eye color you always just use a standard brown.

What led you into forensic artistry?

From childhood I saw things differently from everyone else. I was always on the outside looking in. I am from an artistic family but my art was on the darker side. I wasn’t drawing flowers and pretty little landscapes. I enjoyed going to cemeteries and looking at the old trees and sketching them, or reading the gravestones. It’s really beautiful some of the things people write. I thought about how people live for such a short period of time, and I wondered about what comes after. I like challenges, I need to know what I’m doing can actually make a difference, so the only thing I thought to study was criminology. Forensic arts was a great way to combine art with the crime fighting aspect. I went to the FBI academy in Quantico, Virginia. I learned how to deal with people describing something horrible and take their words and put it in a picture. Later, I went to the University of Tennessee Knoxville and worked in the body farm. These are the bones of people who have donated their bodies for scientific study. I learned how to tell all about a person from just looking at their bones.

Is it difficult to spend so much time around death?

I think we get spoiled here in the west. Everything concerning death is always done automatically, there’s no reasoning behind death. You die and we just put you in the ground and move on. There’s no tradition, no culture, no celebration. You find that in other cultures but you just don’t find it here. No one knows what happens in death, and out of death, and I think that’s neat. I have always believed there is something more to life than just this moment. I love being out of my comfort zone, and I don’t like the same day twice. I see life as one gigantic mystery. You don’t ever need to solve it, you just need to enjoy it.

2 thoughts on “Solving Murders and Sculpting Skulls, Interview with a Forensic Artist”

  1. Tara

    Hello, I really don’t know how this works but I am in the process of looking into being a Forensic Artist. I have a bachelor’s in studio art. I am really interested in identifying bones. I was planning on studying Physical Anthropology. Could you give me some advice?

    • justin

      Thanks for the good comment. I found an article online about just what it takes to be a forensic artist: The article leads you to the International Association for Identification, which oversees all things to do with forensic arts: And of course if you want some more personalized advice I would suggesting checking out the website of Barbara Anderson, the forensic artist I interviewed, and then emailing her yourself. Her email is right there on her website. Thanks again for checking out Digital Dying, you can follow my future posts on Twitter @JustinNobel and like Digital Dying’s page on facebook.

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