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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.”

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11 Behind-the-Counter Secrets of Baristas
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Being a barista is no easy task, and it’s not just the early hours and the don’t-talk-to-me-unless-I’ve-had-my-coffee customers. While people often think working at a cafe is a part-time, temporary gig, it takes extensive training to learn your way around an espresso machine, and most baristas are in it for the love of coffee, not just to pay the bills. Mental Floss spoke to a few baristas working at the New York Coffee Festival to learn what exactly goes on behind the counter, and why you should never, ever dump your extra coffee in the trash.

1. THEY REALLY LOVE COFFEE.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the profession, says New York City-based barista Kayla Bird, is “that it's not a real job.” But especially in specialty cafes, many baristas are in it for the long haul. Coffee is their career.

“It's a chosen field,” as barista Virgil San Miguel puts it. “It's not like you work in a coffee shop because it's a glamorous job,” he explains. “It's more like a passion.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF TRAINING.

“Being a really good barista takes a lot of studying,” explains Jake Griffin, a wholesale representative for Irving Farm Coffee Roasters who has worked in the coffee industry for almost a decade. “It can take a few years. You have to start to understand origins, production methods, where your coffee came from.” You have to go through an intensive education before you start pulling espresso shots for customers, so it's possible that the person taking your order and fetching your pastry isn't even allowed to make you a drink yet. “They have to be what we call 'bar certified' before they're even allowed on the machine,” he says. “Usually people start off in our cafes in various support roles, then start to go to classes and go through the training program.”

3. THEY’RE PROBABLY PRETTY WIRED.

Sure, baristas take full advantage of all that free coffee. And if they work in their company’s training programs, their whole job is to drink coffee. But it has its downsides. “I taste—at minimum—ten shots of espresso a day,” John Hrabe, who trains baristas at Birch Coffee in New York City, says. On his busier days, it might be as many as 20. You get used to all the caffeine, he claims—at least until you take a few days off. “Then when you go on vacation and you're not working ... everyone's like, 'Why's John so tired?’”

Other baristas who have worked in the field for a long time say the same. “I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I used to have five or six coffees a day,” Michael Sadler, who helped develop the barista education program at Toby’s Coffee, says. “Now I do two,” he says, both because of the caffeine-induced anxiety and the withdrawal headaches he would get on his days off.

4. OR THEY’RE DRINKING … SOMETHING ELSE.

Like any job, there are things that go on in coffee shops that the boss would definitely not approve of. According to one barista who has worked at both a corporate coffee chain and specialty cafes in Delaware and New York, coffee shops can get pretty rowdy behind-the-scenes. “If you see a barista with a lidded cup behind the bar, there's probably a 50/50 chance: It's either coffee or beer,” he says. “You never know.” And it’s not just the booze, either. “I’ve been a part of secret menus that have cannabis-infused coconut milk,” he explains. “I had a pretty good cappuccino.”

5. THEY GET ANNOYED WHEN YOU SKIP THE PLEASANTRIES.

You don’t want to hold up the line telling a barista your life story at 7 a.m., but even if you’re in a hurry, don’t forget to say hi before you jump into demanding that large coffee. “Walking up to somebody and saying 'Almond latte,' when they just said 'How are you today?' is probably the biggest thing you can do to get on a barista's bad side,” Toby's Coffee's Sadler says. “It's like, exchange pleasantries, then get to business.”

6. IF YOU’RE NOT NICE TO THEM, THEY WON’T BE NICE TO YOU.

Not everyone is super perky in the morning, but if you can’t be civil, you’re better off making your own coffee at home. At some places, if you get snippy with the employees, you’re going to get worse than furtive eye rolls between baristas (though you’ll get that, too).

“Be nice to your baristas, or you get decaf,” warns one barista. While it varies from cafe to cafe, multiple baristas told Mental Floss that it happens. Rude customers might get three letters written on their cup: “They call it DTB—‘decaf that bitch.’”

There’s a less potent way a barista can get back at you, too. If the hole in your coffee lid lines up with the seam of your paper cup, you’re going to get dripped on. And sometimes, it’s not an accident. “When a barista puts the mouth on the seam, they want it to leak on you,” a New York City-based barista explains.

Others are a little more forgiving of rude patrons. “I like making them the best drink that they've ever had, just to kill them with kindness,” one coffee shop employee says. “I don't want them to be like, ‘She’s a bad barista.’” Just to be safe, though, it's better to be nice.

7. THEY PROBABLY KNOW WHAT YOU WANT BEFORE YOU DO.

“The longer you work in coffee, the more when someone walks in the door you read their personality type and say, I know exactly what you're going to drink,” Jared Hamilton, a self-described “espresso wizard” at the Brooklyn-based chain Cafe Grumpy, says. When I ask him to predict my drink, he proves his skills. “What you're going to drink is like, an alternative milk, flat white or cappuccino. So maybe soy, probably almond. Nonstandard. You don't want a lot of milk, just enough.” He’s not too far off—my go-to is, in fact, a non-standard, some-milk-but-not-too-much drink, a decaf cappuccino, though I drink regular milk in it. He points to another festival visitor who is dressed in business attire. "That guy right there, he drinks espresso all day," he guesses.

Depending on the coffee shop, the barista might know what customers want more than they do. Dominique Richards, who started her first barista job in Brooklyn three months ago, says she has to order for her customers around a third of the time. “Usually if someone's looking at the menu for more than 30 seconds, I jump in and say, ‘Hey, what would you like?’” She then asks them a few questions, like whether they want hot or cold coffee, and goes from there, often recommending lattes for people who are just getting into specialty coffee. “It's kind of a learning experience for the majority” of her customers, she says.

8. CUSTOMERS CAN BE REALLY PARTICULAR.

“People treat cafes like they're [their own] kitchen,” according to Cafe Grumpy’s Hamilton. “My favorite thing people do is when they walk in and they rearrange the condiment bar. Then they order, then they go use the condiments.” Apparently, some people are really particular about the location of their sugar packets. And if you throw off their routine, watch out. One of his colleagues describes a customer who threw a fit because the shop didn’t have a cinnamon shaker, demanding a refund for both her coffee and her pastry. (They eventually found some cinnamon for her.)

9. YOU SHOULD NEVER, EVER DUMP EXTRA COFFEE STRAIGHT INTO THE TRASH.

Even if you ask for room for milk in your drip coffee, the cup is still sometimes just a bit too full. It’s tempting to just pour a little into the trash can, but whoever has to take out that garbage is going to pay for it. “Please don't pour it in the garbage,” Bluestone Lane barista Marina Velazquez pleads. “Because at the end of the night, it ends up on our feet.” If the shop doesn’t have a dedicated container for you to pour out your excess coffee, take it back to the counter and ask them to dump a bit in the sink. Your baristas will thank you.

10. MAKING ESPRESSO DRINKS ISN’T A ROTE SKILL.

When you’re waiting in line, it may look like baristas are doing the same thing over and over for dozens of drinks. But in fact, every order presents its own challenges.

“There's probably not an appreciation for how much a coffee can vary,” explains Katie Duris, a former barista of 10 years who now works as a wholesale manager at Joe Coffee. High-quality coffee is “really dynamic as an ingredient,” she says. Baristas “have to make micro adjustments all day long. You have to change the grind based on the humidity in the room or a draft or how much coffee is in your hopper—if it's an espresso machine—so they're tweaking all day long … good baristas are making adjustments all the time.”

11. IT’S PHYSICALLY TAXING.

Making espresso drinks all day long can wear you out, and not just because you’re on your feet all day. There are also repetitive stress injuries to consider. “There's physical wear and tear on your joints when you're a barista,” Birch's Hrabe says. He’s worked in coffee for 11 years, and says that tamping espresso shots (compressing the grounds before brewing) day after day has given him tennis elbow. “It's totally common for baristas,” he says.

In short, baristas are probably doing more work behind the bar than you give them credit for, whether it’s dealing with customers or actually making coffee. “Being a barista is fun, but it's hard work,” Bluestone Lane's Velazquez says. “Everybody should be a barista at least once. I think it teaches humility.”

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10 Secrets of Ski Instructors
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If you’ve spent this fall wearing shorts and sandals, you’re not alone: Temperatures have been warmer than average across the United States. But no matter how warm it is where you are, there’s still snow (and skiing) in the forecast somewhere. Before you hit the slopes this winter, check out these on-the-job secrets of ski instructors, from why they love bad weather to what they do during the summer.

1. THEY LOVE BAD WEATHER.

No one can control the weather, but ski instructors cross their fingers for frosty temperatures and heavy snowfall. “Ski instructors love cold, appalling winter weather because it so often results in big snowfalls and the skier's dream—velvety powder snow,” says Chalky White, a ski instructor and the author of The 7 Secrets of Skiing.

But big snowfalls don’t always happen, so ski instructors try to make the best of whatever weather they encounter on a given day. Tony Macri of Snow Trainers, a ski and snowboard training company based in Colorado and New Zealand, tells Mental Floss that the weather’s unpredictability makes ski instructing an adventure. “I never think that weather is disappointing,” he says. “It is what creates more challenge and mystery in every day, versus going back to your cubicle that always has the same florescent light shining down on you.”

2. SOME OF THEM HAVE A BEEF WITH SNOWBOARDERS.

Although some ski instructors also teach (and love) snowboarding, the majority of them try to stay away from snowboarders on the slopes, at least when they’re teaching. “[Snowboarders] tend to push all the fresh snow down the hill with their natural movements. Gets pretty frustrating!” justind99, a ski instructor in Quebec, writes in a Reddit AMA.

But other ski instructors have a more zen attitude when it comes to snowboarders and preach coexistence. “We are all here to have fun,” rbot1, a ski instructor in Salt Lake City, says in a Reddit AMA. “The snowboarder vs skier stigma does nothing but cause problems. Share the mountain!”

3. THEIR CERTIFICATION PROCESS IS INTENSE.

Ski instructor teaching adults

Depending on the country in which they become certified, ski instructors must take classes and pass a series of tests to prove their proficiency. In the U.S., the Professional Ski Instructors of America and American Association of Snowboard Instructors (PSIA-AASI) establishes certification requirements for instructors. Once instructors become certified, they can take additional tests of their technical skills to earn higher levels of certification.

“Level 1 is pretty easy to get. Anyone that can ski a blue square comfortably can pass a level 1 exam,” rbot1 says. But achieving certification for higher levels is more challenging, requiring ski instructors to demonstrate their mastery of various turns, bump runs, and drills. “A single mistake in any of those runs nets you a fail,” says rbot1, who spent two years preparing for his Level 2 test. “These drills might be easy to complete, but you have to do it perfectly.”

4. THEY’VE SEEN SOME GNARLY ACCIDENTS.

Although some people think of skiing as a risky activity, ski instructors insist that, statistically, skiing is no more hazardous than many other sports. That said, most ski instructors have seen at least one nasty injury on the slopes, including broken legs and noses, concussions, and shoulder dislocations. “The worst injury I ever witnessed was a spinal fracture from a kid landing on his back after attempting to do a jump in the snow park area,” justind99 says.

“I have seen some injuries to knees, but the worst was when a friend concussed himself so bad that he was knocked out and was actually sleeping with his eyes open,” Macri says. White tells Mental Floss that a helicopter once picked him up from the slopes because medics suspected that he’d broken his neck. “Good news—I didn’t."

5. THEIR PAY ISN’T GREAT.

The income ski instructors make can vary widely, based on where they teach and their level of expertise. Some instructors earn $10 or $11 an hour for group lessons but charge more for private lessons or longer coaching sessions. While most beginning ski instructors may make just $20,000 per year, the perks of getting paid to ski outweigh the lack of cash for many instructors. “I do understand that at some point I’ll need to either start working really hard to boost my earning potential as an instructor or find another field,” rbot1 says. “For now, it’s a blast.”

6. THEY GET CREATIVE TO TEACH KIDS.

Ski instructor teaching children

A group of young kids bundled up in ski jackets while they try to balance on narrow skis might look adorable, but teaching children to ski comes with plenty of challenges. “Some kids don't have the muscles to do it at [a young] age and some do,” explains inkybus21, a ski and snowboard instructor who has taught in Canada, Australia, and Japan. To make sure his young students don’t lose interest or give up, he makes up games that require various skiing motions and uses visuals to help kids figure out how to properly use their bodies.

7. THEIR EQUIPMENT IS EXPENSIVE.

Ski equipment can be pricey, and ski instructors know the pain of an empty wallet firsthand. From skis and boots to bindings, poles, helmets, goggles, and other accessories, ski instructors can easily spend over $1000 on their equipment. And because their gear gets more use than a casual skier’s, instructors typically go through a pair of skis, boots, and liners each season. But many instructors are eligible for steep discounts on their gear, thanks to their employer or their PSIA-AASI membership. “I haven't bought anything at retail price in years,” rbot1 says. “I can’t even imagine paying full price for a pair of boots or ski/binder set up.”

8. THEY MISS SKIING DURING THE SUMMER.

In a career dependent on the winter season, what do ski instructors do during the summer? Some of them travel to the opposite hemisphere to work at a ski resort—essentially working two winters in a row. But because it can be costly to travel and live on another continent, most ski instructors work odd jobs or use their savings to rock climb and explore the outdoors in the off season. Rbot1, for example, has spent his summers working at a ski resort’s restaurant, boxing fish at an Alaskan processing plant, and living off of his savings. “Most people have a seasonal job. The most popular is raft guiding, the second most popular is working at a state park,” he says.

9. THEY GREATLY APPRECIATE TIPS.

Ski instructors don’t always receive tips from their students, and they wish more people knew that they welcome—and in some cases, expect—gratuity. Rbot1 recounts the story of how he once earned $1500, his biggest tip to date, after instructing a family of four for five days, taking them to different parts of the mountain and even eating lunch with them. “At the end of the week it was all hugs and smiles, but my hand was left dry,” he says. “Anyways, next day I got an email that said ‘you have a tip in the office’ and BOOM $1500 in an envelope.” Rbot1 made good use of the generous tip, paying two months of rent and car payments, as well as buying new ski goggles and gloves.

10. THEY LOVE HELPING PEOPLE OVERCOME THEIR FEARS.

Although skiing is good exercise and an enjoyable winter activity, learning to ski can also help people feel more confident. “It’s not always about skiing and teaching people to be the best skiers,” Macri says. “A lot of [the job] is just about showing people a good time and helping them achieve their goals or overcoming their fears.”

Macri particularly appreciates the amazing views from the top of a mountain, as well as the feeling he gets when he takes students down a great run and everyone high-fives one another in joy. “I sit back and think this is my office and I am having just as amazing [a] time as everyone else. The only difference is that I am getting paid for it,” he says.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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