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Face to face: forensic artists

Photonics Spectra
Nov 2008
Laura S. Marshall,

DUNDEE, Scotland – Beauty, they say, is skin deep. Identity can go right down to the bone.

When a murder victim is unidentified, authorities can turn to forensic artists who specialize in facial reconstruction – experts who can take a human skull and create a reasonable likeness of the person who once inhabited it.

“My task is to generate an image for the public so a name is attached to an unidentified body,” said Karen T. Taylor of Facial Images in Austin, Texas. Taylor has worked on numerous criminal and historical cases and has consulted on the TV show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” The program’s writers even based a character on her. She also has lent her knowledge to “Bones” and “America’s Most Wanted.”

Thanks in part to such shows, Taylor said, forensics has experienced a growth spurt. The “ ‘CSI’ effect,” which refers to the influence of crime-related programming on the public’s expectation and understanding of forensic science, has drawn more people to the field.

Technological advances haven’t hurt, either. Previously, an artist created a plaster cast of the skull, added eyes and teeth, then applied clay in layers according to anatomical principles. The final step involved using finishes to add skin texture and color as well as hair.


With training in anatomy, physiology and art, Caroline Wilkinson of the University of Dundee in the UK is a skilled practitioner of both types of forensic facial reconstruction – the traditional clay-based method and the newer computer-based method. Here, a face is physically reconstructed by applying clay to a model of a skull. Images courtesy of Caroline Wilkinson.

Today, CT scans can replace the plaster cast step, and computer programs can allow forensic artists to place virtual tissue on virtual skulls – artists even can whisk it away with a mouse click if they need to refer to an underlayer, something that cannot be done with painstakingly applied lumps of clay.

Although Taylor does not use computer methods, she has worked with skull castings created from CT scans. She also has respect for the computer practitioners of her art – as long as they pay the “art-slash-science” itself enough respect.

In a separate case, a face is reconstructed by applying virtual tissue to a virtual skull created from CT scans.

“The most important thing is that there’s a sound understanding of the anatomical principles involved,” she said. She is thrilled that the field is growing but worries that people will think that, just because they are good with computers, they can reconstruct faces. “I am not comfortable with saying, ‘Here’s a computer software program. Anyone can do it.’”

“This is a very experience-based function. If you see a skull, it looks like a skull. But after the tenth one, you notice all kinds of differences. After the fifteenth one, the 150th one – hence, the term ‘comparative anatomy.’ I’ve spent years encouraging young people to do very specific anatomical research that can be incorporated into computer-based methods. That’s why someone like Caroline Wilkinson is so great.”

Wilkinson, senior lecturer in forensic anthropology at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification in the College of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee in the UK, is on the cutting edge, developing and assessing computer-based facial imaging systems. “I originally studied anatomy/physiology and then art,” she said, “so facial anthropology seemed like a perfect combination of my skills and interests.”

The computer method she favors is virtual sculpture using CT scans of the skull, and FreeForm Modeling Plus software and Phantom, both from SensAble Technologies Inc. of Woburn, Mass. The Phantom, a cross between a computer mouse and a stylus, provides haptic feedback, enabling the user to feel resistance from the device as if working with real clay. The setup also allows touch-based sculpture and 3-D design, and Wilkinson uses a custom database of her own creation.

One advantage of computer reconstruction, Wilkinson joked, is that it is “less dirty” than clay.

But the equipment is expensive, which worries Taylor. She pointed out that she has worked on large-scale reconstructions for The Discovery Channel, relying on technology that is “too expensive for law enforcement.”

She holds out hope that funding will come through for police departments to invest in facial reconstruction technology and for professionals to be trained to use it properly. “Every unidentified murder victim deserves the attention and the opportunity to have a name.”

In optics, an image is the reconstruction of light rays from a source or object when light from that source or object is passed through a system of optics and onto an image forming plane. Light rays passing through an optical system tend to either converge (real image) or diverge (virtual image) to a plane (also called the image plane) in which a visual reproduction of the object is formed. This reconstructed pictorial representation of the object is called an image.
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