Digital Tools Change the Face of Forensic Art
Say “forensic artist” and we conjure images of cutting edge tech and next generation art. But reality is still getting caught up to fiction. Natalie Murry is changing the face of forensic art by using Wacom tablets to create sketches of criminals and victims. Crafting digital images and transmitting them instantly online, she can give police forces more time in situations where every second counts.
Photo courtesy: Natalie Murry
Like many forensic artists, Murry got her start as a police officer. She has a proud family history of public service that extends back for generations. Initially she was a police dispatcher in Kent, Washington—until she dispatched a shooting that involved some Kent officers. “That made me realize I was on the wrong side of the radio,” she said. She spent the next ten years serving as a police officer.
From Forensic Art 101 to Master Class
Murry got into forensic art more by chance than by design. Her sergeant knew she liked art and sent her to a class on composite drawing, sketches that are based on a witness’ memory of a suspect. “What most police artists do is composites, “Murry explained. “They’ve had one week of training in learning how to draw a face, and a lot of times they don’t have an art background.“ While she did have experience in fine art, it wasn’t a perfect fit right away. “Prior to that, I had never drawn a face. Faces were kind of terrifying to me,” she said. “But the forensic art taps into something in my personality; I like to be meticulous.”
One book, Forensic Art and Illustration, dramatically changed her view of forensic art. “Instead of putting in for my department to buy it—because they were a hundred bucks—I went and bought it myself. I read it in two days. I didn’t know there were all these other aspects to forensic art.” Murry was hooked. She attended classes led by the book’s author, Karen Taylor, as well as a course at the FBI Academy, where she learned to create 2D and 3D composites, facial reconstructions, and age progressions. Since then, Murry has begun teaching her own classes in forensic art—with a unique twist.
“I didn’t want to teach unless I had something to offer that nobody else did. As far as I know, nobody else in the country teaches how to do forensic art digitally.” Murry believes you can do things with a Wacom tablet that you can’t do with a sketchbook. “When I first started, I would do a composite and put it through the copier or fax and half of your shading is gone. So your drawings look really poor in quality. Doing it digitally, you don’t have that loss of shading, and the drawing is exactly the way you rendered it on the tablet.” In a time-sensitive medium, preserving quality is important; there isn’t time to add the polish and detail of fine art. Murry uses Cintiq tablets in class to teach forensic artists the many benefits of digital art.
21st Century Tools Help Solve Crimes
Murry is a partner in an innovative business, ID Forensic Art, that creates composite drawings for police departments nationwide. They can interview witnesses online through a camera link called WebEx, create the digital image with a Cintiq tablet, and transmit the image instantly. She was inspired by Australian police forces; they create and send digital composites across wide expanses. It seemed like a good fit in America, where many law enforcement agencies don’t have forensic artists. The road, however, wasn’t an easy one. “It took us two years of drawing, practicing and coming up with different methods until we thought it was good enough.”
When they were done, they knew they had something special. Standard forensic artist interviews can take days or weeks to schedule; Murry could interview a witness online within hours or even moments. “One of the first drawings I did remotely, the crime had occurred that morning; they called me about noon. I had the drawing done and over to them by three o’clock, and they had it on the six o’clock news,” Murry said.
Murry also works with the King County, Washington medical examiner’s office to create facial reconstructions of skeletal or postmortem remains. She takes digital photos and works from those. “The advantage with the tablet is that I can zoom in to a degree that I can’t do with just a photograph, hand sketching on a vellum over it. With the tablet, I can zoom in and see tiny indications on the bone. It’s all sharp; it’s crisp and defined. It’s something that is really an incredible leap forward in the field.”
Washington’s Most Wanted
Photo credit Q13 Fox News
Some of Murry’s most recent work is on a case that has been unsolved for more than twenty years. A semi-truck driver visited a truck stop, then got back on the highway. He rear-ended another semi-truck and was killed when his truck burst into flames. Afterwards, they found a second set of remains in the truck, a woman. Police investigators found she had checked into a hotel with the driver, but they did not know anything about her.
The cold case piqued the interest of television show Washington’s Most Wanted. Working with King County forensic anthropologist Dr. Kathy Taylor, they had the remains exhumed. Washington’s Most Wanted filmed Murry working on a wireless Companion tablet to create the drawing; the show is hoping to bring new attention to a still unsolved mystery. Murry, however, takes her role in the television show lightly. “I can’t imagine anything more dull than to watch me draw,” she laughed.
The rewards of her work, though, can be substantial. Some families have waited years or even decades to learn what happened to a missing family member. Murry remembered one case in particular, where the victim had been killed over forty years before but was identified from Murry’s drawing. “To me, it was so rewarding that her mother got to know before she died what happened to her daughter, that she finally found her daughter after forty years. Those kind of cases make you feel that what you are doing matters. It doesn’t matter that you get paid or how much you get paid. Somebody out there, you’ve made their life a little bit easier. Which is why you get into police work in the first place.”
Photo credit Parella Lewis
To learn more about Natalie Murry, click here.