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  • 11.19.15

How A Police Sketch Artist Works

Police sketches are typically thought of as manifestations of memory, but Jason Harvey’s portraits highlight extraordinary technique.

Forensic artist Jason Harvey has conducted interviews with countless crime victims to illustrate a suspect’s face, but the process always starts out the same. Tell me about the person’s face, Harvey asks them. “We keep it open and vague, let them talk and we listen,” he says of his job. “Work is a non-creative process. We’re ardently creating illustrations from their memory.”

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The portraits Harvey creates on the job are investigative tools, but there’s no denying the artistry that goes into each illustration. When Fort Gansevoort Gallery owner Adam Shopkorn heard about Harvey’s work, he immediately thought it should be exhibited in a fine art context. (The filmmaker Joshua Safdie, who co-organized Fantasy Composites, originally saw Harvey’s work on the @NYCityAlerts and @NYPDnews Twitter feed and shared them with Shopkorn.) “We’re about reframing or reformatting a certain craft or an artist,” Shopkorn says.

Harvey, who went to art school in Sarasota, Florida, first started with the NYPD as a cop in Harlem. Then he found out about the Forensic Investigations Division—which handles all of the post-mortem illustrations, skull restorations, and sketches—and applied about 10 years ago. Now he’s part of the three-person team that handles all of the forensic art for New York City.

He has always viewed his sketches as more of a document, a reflection of a person’s memory with no editorializing on his behalf. A detective briefs Harvey on the case before he sits down with the victim. He starts off light, building a rapport with the person to get him or her comfortable since he often sees them soon after a traumatic experience. Then he asks them about the suspect’s face and begins to sketch. If a victim tells Harvey the suspect has a big nose or mouth or eyes, he’ll typically start there and draw the other features in relation. He’ll show the victim photographs of different faces to compare to his drawings. Based on their response, he’ll go back to the drawing board and refine the illustration until it reflects what’s in the victim’s memory.

“When you’re interviewing people and getting information, it’s good to have some part of the process routine so that when you’re juggling information in real time, you can input and balance things better,” he says.

Composite illustrations aren’t an exact science, but they’re a useful tool in the investigative process.

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Having a gallery show was something Harvey thought about over the years and when Shopkorn invited him to exhibit, he welcomed the opportunity to flex his creative, artistic side and to have a little fun with his sketches.

The portraits in Fantasy Composites come from Harvey’s imagination—they’re not real people. Using the same process and the same paper and pencil as he does at work, he pieces together a face but instead of working from memory, he sought to create something that was visually arresting.

“I thought about the characters for a day or so just to get them formulated and have a direction,” Harvey says. On the job, he limits the process to around two to three hours because victims’ memories get muddled any longer than that. For the exhibition, he spent more time developing the faces in his mind and putting them to paper.

Some faces have piercing eyes or a raucous hairstyle, mottled skin or a solemn disposition. They become characters in and of themselves.

“It’s interesting to hear responses to the drawings because people imagine backstories [for the portraits] and I didn’t think about that too much,” Harvey says. “I was just trying to develop an interesting face and it all happened organically.”

Fantasy Composites is on view at Fort Gansevoort until January 10, 2016.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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