15 Secrets of Forensic Artists

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Despite recent advancements in DNA evidence-gathering and high-tech investigative tools, a simple pencil-on-paper sketch can still have a significant impact on criminal cases. Forensic artists who create such sketches use eyewitness accounts, crime scene evidence, skeletal remains, and more to help illustrate and personify criminals and victims—all of it in the pursuit of bringing perpetrators to justice.

To better understand the details of the job, Mental Floss asked three veteran forensic artists about tricks of the trade, why they’re not actually trying to create an exact likeness, and how a bird’s nest can be one of their best tools. Here’s what we’ve learned.

1. SOME SKETCHES ARE INSPIRED BY SMELLS.


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When witnesses sit down with law enforcement to relay their description of a criminal’s appearance, they might believe the only relevant information is what their eyes have seen. But according to Melissa Cooper, a freelance forensic artist based in California, all of their senses matter. “It often helps to ask questions that will trigger memory recall,” she says. “During one case interview, I asked [a witness] what stood out the most. She said, ‘His cologne.’ You’d think, ‘Oh, great, I can’t draw that,’ but scent is a huge enabler for memory. Now I know she can smell him and she’s right back in the scene. It’s a perfect state to be in.”

2. THEY NEED TO SUPPRESS THEIR CREATIVITY.

It's easy to imagine that forensic artists might remain hunched over a sketch for hours, trying to insert every last dimple and laugh line they could tease out of a witness. Wrong. According to Cooper, trying to create an exact likeness might make a sketch less likely to resonate with the public. “With a highly realistic portrait, someone might see it who knows the person, but if there’s one thing wrong, one detail, they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s not my buddy,’” Cooper says. “When it’s more sketchy, more scribbled, you’re leaving more open to interpretation.”

Lisa Bailey, author of Ask a Forensic Artist and a consultant for several law enforcement agencies, agrees. “[Artists] are by necessity keeping their own self-expression and artistry out of it, and not adding information that would create a 'prettier’ image that could lead someone away from recognition.”

3. A SKULL CAN TELL ALL.


Courtesy of Lisa Bailey

Forensic artists have responsibilities that go far beyond sketching criminal suspects. Sometimes, they’re called upon to recreate the facial features of a deceased person by “building” out a face using a 3-D replica of a retrieved skull. Teaming with a forensic anthropologist who can usually determine the age, sex, ancestry, and height of the deceased, the artist uses clay to sculpt their missing features. “The skull says so much,” Cooper says. “It can tell you where the eyes angled, where the nostrils went [see image above], where the eyebrows were. Given the choice of a photo of a corpse that’s decomposing or a skull, I’d take the skull.”

4. THERE ARE NOT A LOT OF THEM WORKING FULL-TIME.

By some estimates, there are less than 100 full-time forensic artists in the country. That’s because most of the artists working cases are either freelancers hired by departments or active-duty officers or other agency employees who are called in when needed. “For the average-sized or smaller agency, it doesn't always make sense to have a full-time artist,” Bailey says. “Lots of cases don't require one—there's a video of the suspect, or investigators have already developed leads to the identity of the suspect. Even if an agency estimated the need for 20 or so sketches year, that's still not enough work to justify keeping a full-time artist on the payroll.”

5. DETECTIVES AREN’T ALWAYS HAPPY ABOUT USING SKETCHES.


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Charles Jackson, one of the "dual duty" artists who retired from law enforcement as a detective in 2013 but continues to provide forensic sketches, says that his fellow investigators were often reluctant to circulate the art he produced. “The most surprising thing about the job is that it’s hard to get detectives to use the tool,” he says. “Generating evidence based on memory, I think they can sometimes be afraid to [have victims] testify to it.” Despite the potential for defense attorneys to call sketches into question, Jackson says that almost all detectives who wind up using them are glad they did. "It's always been a positive."

6. WITNESSES SIGN SKETCHES.

Once a sketch has been completed and passed on to the investigating officers, it’s considered official police evidence that needs to adhere to a chain of command. To make sure the illustration came from the memory of a specific person, the witness is usually asked to endorse it with a signature. “For a pencil composite, the witness will usually sign the back of the sketch, behind the area of the face so that it won't unintentionally be made public when it's scanned, or can't be accidentally cut off if the sketch is trimmed down to fit in a case file,” Bailey says. The original is then kept on file in an evidence room.

7. BIRD NESTS CAN BE A BIG HELP.


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For cases where artists are called to help reconstruct the likeness of a decomposed or otherwise de-featured body, Cooper says that a good reference source for bodies found in the woods can often be found in a very unlikely place. “When dealing with a decomposed body, we’d like to get the color of the hair, and a good place to find that is in a bird’s nest nearby,” she says. “Birds love hair.”

8. SOMETIMES THEIR WORK IS GIVEN AS A GIFT.

Because many forensic artists can be skilled in age progression—trying to realize how a missing child might look years after their disappearance—families with missing loved ones will sometimes inquire about having a sketch done as part of their grieving process. “Sometimes it’s the actual parents, and sometimes it’s just one spouse who wants to give it to the other one,” Cooper says. “I sometimes get scared, not knowing how they’ll react, but they’re usually very grateful.”

9. THEY MIGHT BE DRAWING SOMEONE POLICE ALREADY KNOW ABOUT.


Courtesy of Melissa Cooper

According to Jackson, not all sketches are done in the proverbial dark. In some instances, authorities have a suspect in mind and are curious if a witness can match that image with their own description. “Detectives frequently call us to corroborate a suspect they have in mind, so it’s basically a composite sketch for a lead,” Jackson says.

10. SOME RECONSTRUCTIONS MIGHT GET A SMILE.

When Bailey is tasked with sculpting the features of a cold case victim, she pays attention to anything unusual or unique about their teeth. If a tooth is crooked or their smile is distinctive, she may decide to add a little smirk. “If there's anything unusual about the teeth, like gaps or crookedness, then we'll sculpt it with parted lips, or with a small smile, because someone might recognize the person just because of the teeth.”

11. SOFTWARE HELPS SOFTEN IMAGES.


IQBiometrix

Some departments without the resources to hire forensic artists rely on software that can digitally render faces. While their efficacy compared to hand-drawn images is open to debate, many forensic artists often rely on software when it’s time to prepare a victim's photographed image for public consumption. “There's a lot of work to do to make an image suitable for public release,” Bailey says. “The artist will have to digitally open the eyes, close the mouth and adjust the jaw, remove swathing and cloth that has been placed around the head, and realign the head so the shoulders aren't hunched up around the ears when they are lying on the morgue table.” Bruises, blood, wounds, and other marks are also retouched.

12. THEY CAN WORK FROM SURVEILLANCE FOOTAGE.

Not all renderings of suspected criminals come from memory. Sometimes, an artist will be called on to fill in the blanks left by incomplete or obscured surveillance footage. “If they have only a three-quarters shot of someone’s head from above, I can look at that,” Cooper says. “Knowing the anatomy of the head, I can show them what the rest of the person would look like.”

13. EARS CAN GIVE THEM A LITTLE TROUBLE.


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Jackson says that many witnesses tend to retain visual information relating to the center of the face: the eyes, nose, mouth, and chin. “People generally have a hard time picking out ears,” he says, mainly because they just didn’t notice them. To assist witnesses with feature identification, some artists use an FBI manual that catalogs many common features and asks interviewees to point out which ones look familiar. Jackson uses one; Cooper doesn’t. “Pictures can be suggestible,” she says. “I like [details] to come from them.”

14. THEY WILL NOT DRAW YOU A CHUPACABRA.

Forensic artists occasionally tackle work outside of law enforcement duties: Cooper has worked with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles with taxidermy efforts for exhibits. But requests to do anything too far off the beaten path are usually met with refusal. “My primary clients are law enforcement, but I once had someone from the Ellen Show wanting me to do a composite of a chupacabra, which Ellen’s wife apparently saw outside their house,” she says. “Someone else wanted to help interpret a dream for them. There’s an element of integrity to the job. I declined. You get a lot of weird requests.”

15. LUCK PLAYS A BIG PART.


Courtesy of Melissa Cooper

Artists working with law enforcement do everything they can to try and take a person’s memories and make them into a tangible image on a page. But no matter how striking the image, nothing will happen unless it ends up in the right place. “We're dealing with luck and timing,” Bailey says. “The right person needs to be looking at the right time. The best, most accurate facial approximation in the world can't do its job if a family member or friend isn't looking.”

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

10 Secrets of Ice Cream Truck Drivers

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asiafoto/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Ever since Good Humor founder Harry Burt dispatched the first jingling ice cream trucks in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1920, kids and adults alike have had a primal reaction to the sight of a vehicle equipped with a cold, sugary payload. Today, ice cream trucks spend May through October hoping to entice customers into making an impulse beat-the-heat purchase. To get a better idea of what goes into making ice cream a portable business, Mental Floss spoke with several proprietors for their take on everything from ideal weather conditions to police encounters. Here’s the inside scoop.

1. IT CAN GET TOO HOT FOR BUSINESS.

The most common misconception about the ice cream truck business? That soaring temperatures mean soaring profits. According to Jim Malin, owner of Jim’s Ice Cream Truck in Fairfield, Connecticut, record highs can mean decreased profits. “When it’s really hot, like 90 or 100 degrees out, sales go way down,” Malin says. “People aren’t outside. They’re indoors with air conditioning.” And like a lot of trucks, Malin’s isn’t equipped with air conditioning. “I’m suffering and sales are suffering." The ideal temperature? "A 75-degree day is perfect.”

2. THEY DON’T JUST WANDER NEIGHBORHOODS ANYMORE.

An ice cream truck sits parked in a public spot
Chunky Dunks

The days of driving a few miles an hour down a residential street hoping for a hungry clientele have fallen by the wayside. Many vendors, including Malin, make up half or more of their business by arranging for scheduled stops at events like weddings, employee picnics, or school functions. “We do birthday parties, church festivals, sometimes block parties,” he says. Customers can pay in advance, meaning that all guests have to do is order from the menu.

3. SOME OF THEM DRIVE A MINIBUS INSTEAD OF A TRUCK.

For sheer ice cream horsepower, nothing beats a minibus. Laci Byerly, owner of Doodlebop’s Ice Cream Emporium in Jacksonville, Florida, uses an airport-style shuttle for her inventory. “Instead of one or two freezers, we can fit three,” she says. More importantly, the extra space means she doesn’t have to spend the day hunched over. “We can stand straight up.”

4. THEY HAVE A SECRET STASH OF ICE CREAM TO GIVE AWAY TO SPECIAL CUSTOMERS.

A picture of an ice cream truck menu.
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

The goal of any truck is to sell enough ice cream to justify the time and expense of operation, so freebies don’t make much sense—unless the truck happens to have some damaged goods. Malin says that it’s common for some pre-packaged bars to be broken inside wrappers, rendering them unattractive for sale. He sets these bars aside for kids who know the score. “I put them in a little box for kids who come up and ask if I have damaged ice cream,” he says. “Certain kids know I have it, and I’m happy to give it to them.”

5. THEY’RE CREATING CUSTOM ICE CREAM MENUS.

An ice cream nacho platter is shown
Chunky Dunks

While pre-packaged Popsicles and ice cream sandwiches remain perennial sellers, a number of trucks are mixing up business by offering one-of-a-kind treats. At the Chunky Dunks truck in Madison, Mississippi, owner Will Lamkin serves up Ice Cream Nachos, a signature dish that outsells anything made by Nestle. “It’s cinnamon sugar chips with your choice of ice cream,” he says. “You get whipped cream, too. And for the ‘cheese,’ it’s a caramel-chocolate sauce.” The nachos work because they’re “streetable,” Lamkin’s label for something people can carry while walking. “The next seven or eight people in line see it, and then everyone’s ordering it.”

6. THEY DON’T ALWAYS PLAY THE ICONIC JINGLE.

Before most people see an ice cream truck, they hear that familiar tinny tune. While some operators still rely on it for its familiarity, Malin and others prefer more modern tracks. “Normally we play ‘80s rock,” he says. “Or whatever we feel like playing that day. We rock it out.”

7. POP CULTURE CHARACTERS ARE SOME OF THEIR BEST SELLERS.

A Captain America ice cream treat
Doodlebop's

While adult customers tend to favor ice cream treats they remember from their youth, kids who don’t really recognize nostalgia tend to like items emblazoned with the likenesses and trademarks of licensed characters currently occupying their TV screens and local theaters. “Characters are the most popular with kids,” Byerly says. “SpongeBob, Minions, and Captain America.”

8. THEY KEEP DOG FOOD HANDY.

At Doodlebop’s, Byerly has a strategy for luring customers with pets: She keeps dog treats on hand. “The dog will sometimes get to us before the owner does,” she says. “If the dog comes up to the truck, he’ll get a Milkbone.” That often leads to a human companion purchasing a treat for themselves.

9. SOMETIMES RIVALS WILL CALL THE COPS.

Though there have been stories of rogue ice cream vendors aggressively competing for neighborhood space over the years, Malin says that he’s never experienced any kind of out-and-out turf war. Ice cream truck drivers tend to be a little more passive-aggressive than that. “I have a business permit for Fairfield, so that’s typically where I’m driving,” he says. “But sometimes I might go out of town for an event. Once, a driver pulled up to me and asked if I had a permit. I said ‘No, I’m just here for an hour,’ and he said, ‘OK, I’m calling the cops.’ They try and get the police to get you out [of town].” Fortunately, police typically don’t write up drivers for the infraction.

10. SOME LUCKY CUSTOMERS HAVE AN APP FOR HOME DELIVERY.

An ice cream truck driver.
George Rose/Getty Images

Technology has influenced everything, and ice cream trucks are no exception. Malin uses an app that allows customers to request that he make a special delivery. "People can request I pull up right outside their home," he says. If their parents are home, there’s one additional perk: "I accept credit cards."

This article originally ran in 2018.