Learn the Basics of Sketch Art

In most cases, the term, "sketch artist" refers to someone who creates sketches for law enforcement. Realistically, however, a sketch artist is anyone who creates images using sketching techniques. Sketch artists can look at a subject and draw it as close as possible to the original on paper or another similar surface. They must have great hand-eye coordination, artistic talent, steady hands and the ability to make realistic drawings come to life.

Sketch artists had used their talents long before the camera was invented to record history, the proceedings in a courtroom, capturing an author’s vision within the pages of a book, caricatures of adults and children at fairs, and in the advertising and newsrooms of newspapers and magazines. Some artists display their sketches on the walls of art galleries or museums. Of course, many artists also use sketching to "rough draft" their ideas before using their chosen medium.

Sketch artists may be employed within an architecture firm creating sketches of buildings and homes, or employed by a police department or correctional facility drawings pictures of victims and the surroundings of a crime scene. They construct drawings of people’s features from victims or witnesses’ descriptions. Some sketch artists teach while others enjoy working in the field with scientists or cartographers.


Develop the Appropriate Technical Skills

The arts are unlike many other career fields in that there is usually no educational requirement. That doesn't mean you shouldn’t attend classes, pursue a degree, or hone your craft. Aspiring artists should view an education as a learning experience and an opportunity to learn the specific techniques and skills they'll need to both compete professionally and improve as an artist. In other words, it's not so much about the degree as it is about the knowledge and ability you'll gain through coursework, internships, apprenticeships, and mentoring opportunities. 

Many sketch artists complete two or four-year degrees before they begin their career. Art, unlike other careers, is something that evolves over time. So, it's important for artists to continually practice their craft, take seminars and classes that will help them develop new techniques, etc. Fortunately, there are a lot of opportunities to continually extend your education through online courses, seminars, and local events. 

In order to succeed as a sketch artist, no matter the career field, individuals must have a thorough knowledge and understanding of a number of skills, which include:

  • Perspective; how basic three-dimensional shapes are represented on a two-dimensional surface
  • Proportions; the relation of size between the various objects in a scene
  • Composition; the placement or organization of visual elements
  • Anatomy; the study of the human body, how they work and how the different parts are put together
  • Lighting; values, shadows, light and dark, which often expressed with shading
  • Edges; split silhouettes and shapes to increase the feeling of depth
  • Gesture; the art of rendering movement in a static drawing
  • Concept; new ideas, original thought, how things work and the creation of new processes
  • Style; aesthetic taste, which often depends on history, society, etc.
  • Communication; ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ – storytelling through pictures 

Sketching is like a muscle; your craft will get better with practice and use.

With forensic and courtroom sketch artists, artistic ability is essential. But, just as important is the ability to listen and communicate on all levels. There are classes and programs available for forensic artists and those who work with law enforcement. Those courses can give you a foundation that's relevant to the field beyond only artistic ability. 

Skills you'll need as a forensic or courtroom sketch artist include:

Accurate Technical Skills:  With this type of sketching, accuracy is key. It's important to develop a high level of proficiency in depicting the human form and, especially, portraits. Forensic sketch artists typically work with limited information and it's imperative that they can adequately capture facial features, often without any subject present to replicate.

Communication Skills:  For artists working with victims to create a composite sketch, communication skills are important. This might mean hearing some very disturbing intricacies of a crime. It's important to develop methods to communicate with victims that will give you as much information as possible. Most people don't have a concept of how to accurately describe facial features. Artists must develop ways to ask questions that will give them a better understanding of the whole composite, as well as specific features.

Strong Stomach:  Sketch artists and courtroom artists will often hear very graphic information that may be disturbing. You'll want to consider whether or not this type of environment will be suited to your personality and fortitude. People who work in these fields often get a high sense of satisfaction in contributing to the justice system. but the work can sometimes take a toll emotionally.


Pursue Formal Training

Sketch artists can work with a number of mediums, but most often they will sketch with graphite or colored pencils. It's important to master the skills involved in sketching. This includes learning techniques to better capture proportions and replicate facial features. It also includes technical skills involved with using an array of sketching and shading techniques. 

Before you consider going into any field as a sketch artist, you must have a firm mastery of the tools sketch artists use. Art students will have the advantage of working with their instructors to better understand the various techniques and concepts. In this way, there's a second set of eyes helping you recognize where you need to improve, your strengths and weaknesses, and your progress over time, which are all essential to developing your talent. It's difficult to judge your own work with clarity. 

For the sketch artist, there are often courses devoted entirely to life drawing, and there may be specific programs for forensic or courtroom reporting. You may also work independently, sketching in public, capturing life as it happens the way you may need to do in a courtroom setting.

Although a degree is usually not a requirement for employment as a sketch artist, aspiring sketch artists should consider obtaining an associate or bachelor’s degree in art or fine art from a college, university or private art school.  Some employers require a degree, while others require a degree and experience.  Of course, if you choose to freelance and branch out on your own, your talent may be the only requirement to obtain clients or show your work. But, some clients and companies that contract your work will prefer you hold a degree as a sign of determination and mental stamina.

At the bachelor’s degree level, students can narrow their focus with a concentration in drawing or sketching.  If you plan to teach at the elementary, middle, or high school level, you may also be required to also earn a teaching certificate.  If you plan to teach at the post-secondary level, you will want to enroll in a master’s program, which also helps further refine and develop your skills and techniques.  Coursework at all levels may include life drawing, painting, human anatomy, art history, and visual organization. 

While in school, you will also have the opportunity to intern or become an apprentice under a professional in the field you wish to pursue.  The connections you’ll make can give you invaluable experience and time to further hone your craft.


Build Your Portfolio & Pursue Professional Development

Another benefit for those who pursue an art or fine art degree is that it allows you time to build your portfolio. Over the course of your studies, you'll create numerous assignments and have the benefit of choosing to include the best representations of your work. Of course, artists can develop a portfolio independently, but the details of what goes into creating a professional portfolio can often only be learned in class.  As your sketching skills progress, you will also want to update your portfolio with more recent works to better represent your skills and progress. And, your portfolio will be the most compelling reason for future employers to hire you, regardless of the career field you pursue. Think of your portfolio as an extension of your resume. Include your best samplings in different mediums. If your interest is in forensic sketching, include any samples of your work in the field, and other portrait work that can represent your skill. 

As a sketch artist, it's likely that you will work in a freelance capacity at some point in your career, although most forensic artists work directly for police departments. In either case, it's important to consider your personal brand. If you use social media, have a website, or use any form of communication to contact prospective employers and colleagues, you should always conduct yourself professionally. 

Forensic sketch artists can make excellent money. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, fine artists (which loosely includes sketch artists) earn a median annual salary of just over $45,000.  Employment for fine artists is projected to grow only two percent between 2014 and 2024, which is much slower than many career fields. That said, overall employment as a forensic or courtroom artist should remain steady. This is true in part because courtrooms do not allow cameras or cell phones to be used during proceedings, making courtroom sketches the only images available for widely reported cases. And, as will all career fields, salary varies depending on location, company or industry, years of experience and education. 

There are other possible avenues to use sketching skills professionally. Many artists sell sketches privately to clients or through local craft fairs. These rates can vary. Some artists work with live subjects, sketching people who sit for them. In these cases, salary is often paid by the hour or will be contracted as a one-time fee.

Professional Development

A career in the arts doesn't have a finish line. There is always room to grow and advance. For the sketch artist, some of your professional career growth will come in the form of networking and building connections. For the forensic sketch artist, this might mean developing relationships with local law enforcement or even working directly for the police department. Often there will be coursework available through forensic associations, so it's beneficial to stay involved in these associations even after you've completed all available classes.

For the courtroom sketch artist, networking may include any of the local media outlets, although you'll likely work in a freelance capacity. Developing ongoing relationships with the editorial or production staff of a newspaper or magazine can be beneficial to learning about upcoming trails, or having your work displayed on the editorial page or in connection with a story.

Sketch artist may also want to consider continuing education courses, or simply enrolling in a local art program to further your skills and learn new skills and techniques.  YouTube has some fascinating tutorials that can further teach aspiring sketch artists new shading techniques, how to use a grid system to frame a picture, and how to use light and perspective to bring a portrait to life.  There are also clubs, artist’s associations, and online classes that can all help sketch artists improve their drawing techniques or help steer their focus to a new or different career.

Get to Know Our Experts

Arlissa Vaughn

  • Title:
    Sketch Artist
  • Company:
  • Where:
    North Carolina
  • Experience:
    10+ years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I have a BFA from East Carolina University’s School of Art and Design. I have been a practicing professional artist for more than 10 years and have seen both the highs and lows of this career choice. I am an independent artist selling my work, both retail and wholesale, in addition to taking custom commission assignments.As a self-employed artist, I divide my time between all areas of a functioning business plan –marketing, sales management, exhibition procurement, and creation of art. I usually do the office tasks in the morning and create art in the afternoons. On most days I stop all work at 5pm to spend the remainder of the day in a more relaxed environment with my husband and daughter.

    When I started out, I wish I had known more about wholesaling art and procuring customers. In art school, the emphasis is on the technical creation, not the business of art.


    Treat it as a job

    Learn to be flexible with your acceptance of commissions. Take on work to pay the bills, even if it’s sketching a comic that you doubt you’ll ever share in your high-end portfolio. Little jobs often turn into larger ones, so don’t turn up your nose too quick.

    Learning is a great booster

    Professional training through a school or apprenticeship with an artist is very useful. Learning the anatomy of the human body, animals, or botanical life will give your work a technical boost that differentiates it from a hobbyist.

    Get your art out there

    Make some sketches, and place them for sale on Facebook, Craigslist, and Etsy. Take notes on what sells and what doesn’t. Learn from your mistakes, and keep trying to grow your business.

    Pablo Solomon

  • Title:
    Sketch Artist
  • Company:
  • Where:
    Near Austin, TX
  • Experience:
    40+ years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    By the time I got to college, I was already selling art and had spent endless hours studying art. In college, I took very little art and a lot of science and technology. The courses like metal casting, welding, materials and processes, anatomy, etc. were priceless to my art skills. I also got an advanced degree in social psychology, which gave me a strong understanding of people. Along the way, I had to take a lot of English, which has helped my communication skills. I was lucky enough to get professional artists to show me the tricks of the trade along the way.I get up each day at about 4am and begin working on correspondence and new ideas. I love my work and consider it a blessing to be able to make a living doing what I love. The freedom and the satisfaction of seeing others like my art and designs is what I love the most. But the lack of certainty of income can be hard. We have learned to budget our money and to not get too excited or too down about the economy. We have been through enough ups and downs to know that one can always find a way to survive.

    Read more about Pablo Solomon.


    Have many skills

    If you can attend a top notch design school, that would be great. However, you can learn the skills from many schools. In addition to your art education, always have skills in other areas with which you can supplement your income until you establish yourself as an artist.

    Learn all you can

    The more you can learn about everything in life and art, the better. I took both mechanical and architectural drawing, for example. This really gave me a good idea of representing objects and scenes from all sides. Study the great drawings of the ages and try to understand why those compositions are considered to be great. Good sketches depend on a balance of creativity, composition and skillful execution.

    You really have to make connections

    It is that simple and that hard. You must be prepared to show your skills if an opportunity arises, but the key is to make contacts with people who can offer you those opportunities.

    Rob Cabrera

  • Title:
    President/ Creative Director
  • Company:
    Creative Squirrels, LLC
  • Where:
    South FL
  • Experience:
    12 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I earned a Bachelor in Fine Arts from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a Masters in Animation and Visual Effects from Academy of Art University – San Francisco. Today, an average workday depends on the project, but I try to keep a steady schedule. Some projects require more work than others. Normally, a typical studio workday can be anywhere from 8 to 10 hours (usually starting very early in the morning). But if I’m in a great creative groove (or there’s a tight deadline) the day can be as long as 14 hours. In that case, I don’t work them straight and will knock out 7 hours in one session, go home, and start up again after I’ve rested and will work well into the early morning.The creative freedom I have working on projects that mean a lot to me is absolutely invaluable. I have worked in some environments where the creativity was greatly restricted by the guidelines of the project, which can be quite frustrating. Also, connecting with people who really dig the work I do is awesome. I create a lot of sports-themed artwork, so it’s always a great feeling when pro athletes contact me wanting the original work.

    While I do like handling the business end of the industry, the administrative paperwork sometimes has to take precedence over creative work, which means fun stuff has to wait. But fun stuff can’t happen unless the business side of things are taken care of. It’s a Catch-22 situation.

    I wish I would’ve learned early on that having a strong business sense of your art is crucial to the success of your career. A lot of schools don’t teach that in their fine arts programs, and they absolutely should. Anything you create has value, and while it’s incredibly fun to create, it’s equally important to value what you create and make others appreciate that.


    Work hard!

    Don’t be a lazy artist. The best artists, whose work keeps on improving every year, are the ones who are putting in the time and effort to make their work look spectacular. The more work you put in, the better you’ll get, and the more efficient you will be in creating your art.

    Learn the way you do

    I would say do whatever you feel you need to reach your goals. If you’re the type of artist who needs a structured program to be taught techniques, then seek out the best program out there for yourself and do that. Do whatever you feel will help you and don’t let anyone or anything stop you.

    Use social media

    Social media is a great way to connect with people, groups, and companies, who have similar interests. Find the right platform for your work and distribute your work that way. Be active and clever in your use of hashtags and the right people will find you.