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.


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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.”

11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Holiday Window Display Designers

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iStock.com/andykazie

For decades, lavish holiday window displays at department stores have been one of the first signs of the season. But have you ever wondered how the designers behind the windows create those enchanting arrangements? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at everything that goes into making the holiday windows so magical at this time of year—from the best way to arrange lights to the pre-season all-nighters.

1. Every holiday window has a purpose.

The holiday windows are supposed to make you feel something, says Jacques Rosas, New York-based artist, founder, and CEO of Jacques Rosas, which does holiday window installations in stores such as Godiva, Elizabeth Arden, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Whenever Rosas is working on a window, he asks about the personality of the store, what they’re imagining, favorite decorations, traditions, and more—all starting with what they sell. “I try to pull settings that have nostalgia for them,” Rosas says. “I think the magical part is the nostalgia.” He loves the feel of an old-fashioned Christmas—last year, he decked out one store window with handmade stockings, old ornaments, and a real train.

2. You won’t see many Christmas trees in the store windows.

A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

At least not any real Christmas trees, Rosas says. Usually, the windows are hot, dry places, so any live trees would dry out and die. They could also catch fire, so a lot of the newer buildings won’t use them even if they could create the right environmental conditions. “We tend to use a lot of fake stuff,” Rosas says.

3. You also won’t see any products.

While store windows throughout the year are supposed to sell products, this time of year is all about the entertainment, says David Spaeth, CEO of Spaeth Design, which does holiday windows for Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany & Co. and Bergdorf Goodman. Sure, you may see a product or two in some of the windows (it’s not a hard-and-fast rule), but this is the time to seduce customers with gorgeous snowflakes or pretty (fake) trees instead of fantastic outfits.

4. But you will see lights.

A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

Lights are what draws customers to the windows, and they can really make the displays pop. But you’d be surprised at how few lights will make a big splash, Rosas says. “There’s not a lot of lights—that’s a big mistake,” he says. "If you do too many, the reflection will play tricks on the viewer, and you won’t actually be able to see anything but lights.” Instead, he uses a few perfectly placed lights that bounce off each other. Rosas also tends to use plenty of wood composite, fiberglass, bark, paper, and plastic to create his scenes. But don't be surprised to spot other wacky items in holiday store windows, like Lite-Brite (yes, the retro toy), coffee stirrers, and even taxidermy. Anything goes when it comes to creating the perfect holiday window.

5. They plan ahead.

When the holidays start dying down, these designers are just getting started on the following year, says Michael Bednark, owner of Bednark Studio, a Brooklyn-based fabrication studio that is responsible for some of the Macy’s holiday windows throughout the country. Design talks start in January, and by March, the ideas are set. It takes two more months to figure out rendering, and the summer months are for fabrication (building the physical elements). Installation starts even before Halloween—by about mid-October, Bednark says.

6. They have working habits comparable to vampires.

Ever wonder how holiday windows pop up like magic? That’s because the artists work through the night to put them up so that they’ll appear in the morning. Installation for the simpler windows usually takes six to eight hours, Rosas says. “We have to be like wizards,” he explains.

7. Some windows can take weeks to install.

A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

A regular window display is an overnight job, but the team working on the Macy’s windows pre-builds them inside the shop. There’s a fake window inside every single Macy’s store, filled with the entire holiday window display. “We pre-build inside the shop so we can make sure that everything fits,” Bednark says. The pre-build takes about four weeks. If it’s a go, it’s moved into the regular window, which takes three weeks.

8. To make it look perfect, the artists touch every light.

The reason store windows look amazing while your holiday display might look just passable is because these designers really pay attention to the details. “When you decorate a tree, or you’re doing your lights and everything, the secret to really nice displays is to touch and adjust each branch, each light, and position everything as if everything was its own individual thing,” Rosas says. “That’s the secret to styling.”

9. When the season is over, the displays are usually tossed.

Some stores will re-use the decorations in-house, but many will toss them because the décor is so unique. Basically, they don’t want to wear the same outfit two days in a row, Spaeth explains.

10. The holidays aren’t their only busy season.

People love holiday store windows, and they’re great for business. But these artists are busy year-round, Rosas says. In addition to doing store window displays for every season, they also decorate show rooms, do trade show displays, and even create sets for TV shows and product launches. In Rosas’s studio, they have two 7500-square-foot spaces, and they use these for creating fake store windows or for marketing experiences. For example, a yogurt company may hire Rosas to use that studio to build an entire yogurt set as a backdrop for a yogurt product launch. The yogurt company would then invite members of the media to the room, where they’d take pictures and do interviews. “We try to inspire people to write about [the company] there,” Rosas says.

11. If you want to replicate the look, get out your checkbook.

A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

To hire a professional display artist to do your holiday windows, expect to pay anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 per window, depending on the number of details and amount of work it will take, Bednark says. In other words, making this kind of magic doesn't come cheap.

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

12 Secrets of Dollar Store Employees

A dollar store in Brooklyn
A dollar store in Brooklyn
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Discount retailers have probably been around as long as commerce itself, but it wasn't until the 1950s that a string of stores began popping up in the South that shared a common element: Everything they sold was dirt-cheap. In recent years, the country has experienced a wave of frugal storefronts selling everything from stationary to seafood. Stores like Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Dollar General, and a rash of independently owned stores catering to the budget-conscious now outnumber Starbucks and McDonald's in the U.S.

To get a better sense of the activity that surrounds these wallet-friendly outlets, Mental Floss spoke to three employees of Dollar Tree. Here’s what they had to say about stocking their shelves, fanatical customers, and why they spend so much time filling up balloons.

1. Paper goods are the best deal in stores.

You can find practically anything at dollar stores, including frozen food (more on that in a moment), toys, and cleaning products. Assortments can vary widely by store and by franchise, but according to Brenda, the store manager of a Dollar Tree in the Midwest, customers get the best deal sticking with paper products. At least, that's what employees buy most frequently. “The items that my employees and I purchase at Dollar Tree for value would definitely be toilet paper, paper towels, birthday cards, candy, balloons, plastic ware, paper plates, envelopes, stationary products, and the daily newspaper,” she says. At her store, toilet paper and the local newspaper are the top sellers. While the former is a pretty obvious necessity, newspapers at her location are typically cheaper than in other stores; the Sunday edition in particular is up to two or three dollars cheaper. (Like a lot of their inventory, the chain likely gets a tremendous discount for buying the papers in bulk.)

2. They know you won't be in the store for too long.

The exterior of a Dollar Tree store is shown from a low angle
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Dollar stores typically have little signage, few frills, and a small real estate footprint (Dollar General's is around 7300 square feet, or one-tenth the size of a Walmart). But having limited space with easily accessible items is by design—the average shopping trip for a Dollar General store is just 10 minutes. “Planning the store around fast trips is one good way to improve the fast experience many customers are looking for, while also keeping sales high by allowing customers to see many products,” says Hank, an assistant Dollar Tree store manager in Canada. Customers “tend to want to get in and out fast. They are often busy and have other plans for the day and don't want to spend too much time wandering the store.”

3. They want customers to feel like they’re on a treasure hunt.

According to Moody’s, an earnings and credit analysis firm, Dollar General rotates its inventory on a regular basis to make customers feel like they need to buy items now in case they’re not around later—perpetuating what it calls a "treasure hunt" feel. That helps the stores compete with online retailers like Amazon, which typically maintains stock of popular products and may not provoke the same sense of urgency in buyers.

Dollar Tree’s approach is slightly different. While new inventory does arrive from suppliers, it’s not as frequently. “When we are doing the truck we get really excited when we see a new product,” Brenda says. “We only see maybe 10 to 15 new things per week out of 1500 items that are coming off of the truck, so when we get something new we immediately cut open the box and examine it.”

4. They catch a lot of shoplifters.

You can walk out of dollar stores with an armful of goods for $20, $10, or less, but that still doesn’t deter people from swiping even the cheapest targets. “The shoplifting is ridiculously rampant,” Brenda says. “We catch someone just about every day.”

Oddly enough, the price may help facilitate the theft. “The thing with the low prices is that there is no real deterrent from people stealing since none of the products have any security around them," Brenda says.

5. They recommend you skip the steak.

A steak sits on a grill
A steak purchased somewhere other than a dollar store.
iStock.com/NightAndDayImages

Shopping for frozen foods at the discount chains can be hit or miss. Some items might be OK: “I’ve had the little pie slices, the sausage and pancake bites, and the Cinnabon bites are amazing,” Brenda says. “The frozen dinners are good as well. People also love the frozen vegetables and fruit.”

But when it comes to unprocessed food, like meat or seafood, you should probably consider a visit to the local grocer instead. “I don’t eat any of the frozen fish or rib eyes because I don’t trust frozen seafood or meat that costs a dollar,” she says.

Nate, a Dollar Tree manager in Minnesota, agrees. “I would never buy the steak,” he says. “I’ve heard from more than one person that it doesn’t cook [well] and it feels like rubber.” In 2016, television affiliate WCPO in Cincinnati attempted a taste test, serving up the four-ounce $1 ribeye along with a butcher's and supermarket cut to some area firefighters. Among the responses: "I guess it was meat" and "It's not terrible."

6. Other stores use them to stock up.

When most everything is a dollar, it’s easy to see why discount chains find themselves acting as a warehouse for local small businesses. Hank says that he’s observed independent proprietors coming in to stock up on items. “There is one man who runs a convenience store and buys boxes of chocolate bars and bottles of soda,” he says. “We also get plenty of event organizers buying supplies in bulk, sometimes hundreds of items at a time.”

7. They dread the sight of Hot Wheels toy cars.

A Hot Wheels toy car is pictured
iStock.com/CTRPhotos

While many toys at dollar store locations are of suspect quality, there’s at least one bit of inventory that causes a lot of excitement in aisles. “We get a lot of the infamous 'Hot Wheels Hunters,'” Nate says, referring to collectors of the popular die-cast toy car line from Mattel. “I guess they scour the internet and find out when stores are getting shipments. I’ve had people show up a day after my 2000-piece truck [arrives] and demand I go find the one box of Hot Wheels I got so they can be the first to buy them.”

If they’re polite, Nate will try to accommodate them. Some of the nicer Hot Wheels fans even deputize themselves as de facto employees. “The one guy that is a frequent visitor will take the boxes I have and stock them neatly on the shelves while he looks for what he wants," Nate says.

8. They sell pregnancy tests. And they’re reliable.

A home pregnancy test shows a positive result
iStock.com/nazdravie

If you’re wary of the accuracy of a home pregnancy test kit that costs $1, well, you probably should be. But according to Nate, his store stocks a reliable brand. “The pregnancy tests we sell are the same ones used in most hospitals,” he says. Most all pregnancy tests detect a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG, which is produced during pregnancy. More expensive tests can detect lower levels earlier in a pregnancy, while cheaper tests—like the ones in dollar stores—might not register a positive until a woman is a little further along.

But they're still effective. And according to Brenda and Nate, they're also among the most-stolen items in their stores.

9. Balloons keep them aloft.

Most Dollar Tree and many other dollar store locations have a counter devoted to mylar balloons intended for birthday parties and other events. That’s because the low cost and easy storage of the un-inflated balloons makes them a very profitable endeavor. “Balloons do a ton of business for Dollar Tree,” Brenda says. “A ton. Especially for big events.”

In a given week, her store might sell 150 to 200 balloons: “If you think about it, every day is someone’s birthday, baby shower, graduation, or anniversary.”

10. They might warn you away from a bad deal.

Shoppers browse the aisles of a dollar store
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

If you’re on the fence about whether or not a dollar purchase is worthwhile, you can always ask an employee. They might tell you if it’s worth the cash. “I know that the quality of our products is not always the best and I obviously am not going to constantly bring this up to customers, but I am not afraid to give them a bit of heads up when I know a certain item is especially poor, or could be found much cheaper at a competitor,” Hank says. “I know that the company will survive without those couple sales, and I prefer to make customers happy over adding a few more dollars to the wallet of the company.”

11. The store manager is often overworked.

Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and other chains have come under fire in recent years for tasking store managers with a lot of responsibility in order to keep the costs of staffing low. According to Nate, that checks out. “In my district they are trial-running having the stores unload the semi-trucks instead of the drivers," he says. "But they won’t give us the hours to add an extra guy, which means I’m the manager on duty while being in the back of a semi throwing 1800 cases."

12. They can’t keep Donald Duck on the shelves.

Bottles of Donald Duck orange juice line a store shelf
Ted Eytan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In stores filled with a lot of unfamiliar brands, customers like to see one recognizable face: Donald Duck’s. The Disney character is front and center on Dollar Tree’s orange juice, and his smiling bill is one of the most popular items in the stores. (The drink is produced by Citrus World, which owns the Florida’s Natural label and licenses the Donald imagery and name from Disney.) “The Donald Duck orange juice is our third most-sold item,” Brenda says. “To be honest, I’m not sure why it’s so popular. A lot of people stop at our store on the way to work or wherever, so it’s kind of a quick pick-up.”

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