Tuesday, 17 May 2022

The portrait as witness and control

From: Vaught's 'Practical Character Reader'

Drawing can lead us into many strange territories, one of which is 'witness description composite drawing'. In the United States artists are employed by police departments, usually in the forensic evidence department.  For instance witness description composite drawing is what the artist Harvey Pratt has spent most of the last 50 years working on. He has worked as a forensic artist for various police forces, whilst also being recognised as an accomplished master Native American Indian artist. In fact it was this dual role that first attracted me to his work.
The term 'composite art' was originally used when facial features (eyes, noses, lips, hair, facial shapes) were compiled to complete a total composite of a face. This procedure was to be used by a witness who was guided through a process of how to match these various facial features in order to form an image of a suspect. Witness description composite drawings were basically the same technique but were drawn free hand and based on an interview of a witness or victim to determine what someone might look like. These drawings are regarded as investigative aids and they are used to help narrow down suspect lists. Witness description drawing can be used not only to identify suspects but also identify tattoos, vehicles and other items that a witness might describe during an interview. 

Below are examples of witness description composite drawings made by Harvey Pratt beside photos of the subject later identified. 

Considered one of the leading forensic artists in the United States, Harvey Pratt spent over 50 years in law enforcement, completing thousands of witness description drawings and hundreds of soft tissue reconstructions. You could say that Harvey Pratt had an interesting portfolio, being a Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal member and also being recognised as an accomplished master Native American Indian artist. Both these aspects of his working life as an artist involved making portraits of people, some being one step removed both emotionally and in terms of experience and others made to celebrate his ethnic origins and feeling of belonging to a tribal culture. 

Harvey Pratt: Drawing of a Native American 

I'm sure some of you will be worried by the fact that someone like Harvey should be introduced under the umbrella of a fine art drawing blog, but one of the issues I am trying to open out is where are the boundaries between fine art, illustration and other occupations whereby similar skills are used? All of these people are called artists and the art world is prone to snobbery, so it is always worthwhile stepping back to explore how broad the church of the artist really is, and as we do so perhaps we also have to ask questions as to how does an artist contribute to society? 
A very similar profession to witness description drawing is of course courtroom drawing. In the UK photographs are not allowed to be taken whilst a trial is in progress. A courtroom sketch is defined as an 'artistic depiction' of the proceedings in a court of law and of course this means that news media have to rely on sketch artists for illustrations of the proceedings, which is probably the main way that the general public get to see hand drawn portraits of people. 

Priscilla Coleman: Naomi Campbell and Piers Morgan for ITN

In the UK, a courtroom illustrator is an incredibly niche trade, and a dying one. At the moment here are four professional courtroom sketch artists: Priscilla Coleman, Siân Frances, Julia Quenzler and Elizabeth Cook. However new laws were passed in January 2020 allowing cameras into the country’s Crown Courts, including the Old Bailey, to broadcast the sentencing remarks on high-profile criminal cases, which means that court artists are only needed for the less 'interesting' aspects of a court case. Drawing in court, or making an image of any kind, be that a photograph, doodle or otherwise, is illegal in British courts. So courtroom artists not only have to be skilled portraitists but they also have to have excellent memories for faces and places. To make their images, they take written notes during the case, before moving outside to the press room to draw their images as fast as possible, both to ensure accuracy and to enable their clients, (newspapers and broadcast media) to get images in time for various deadlines. 

Priscilla Coleman: Artist's notes from courtroom observations

I like to think about the notes taken by these artists as drawings in their own right. They are part of the process of remembrance and are used as triggers to ensure images are brought back as accurately as possible. 

The courtroom artist is a skilled compiler of facial images and they are making notes knowing they are going to construct an image of a face within a few minutes of making their notes. They understand how heads are constructed and have training and years of experience. Compare this to a crime witness's memory of a person that is recalled perhaps several days later or even more, that then has to be translated or communicated to an artist who then has to render the image. When I looked at communication theory I pointed out that Shannon and Weaver wanted to make sure that communication systems worked well. The model they came up with allows us to easily see where problems in a communication system could go wrong. 
In particular the information source needs to be working in such a way that it is decipherable by the information destination. So in this case we have someone who was probably very stressed at the time of the experience, having to recall the facial features of someone they may only have glanced at for a few seconds. Not only that, they will have had no training in the recognition and identification of facial features and no specialist language to help them either.  You should try this yourself, give a verbal description of someone to another student and ask them to make a portrait from that description. The receiver also needs to be good enough to understand or not distort the message coming through. In this case either the police artist uses their experience based on previous encounters or they use the composite model. The skills of the drawer and the ability of the drawer to put this information into an effective shape for transmission are again vital.  You very quickly begin to realise how amazing it is that any communication is made at all. But, and this is the real problematic issue, what both people in this communication system have in common is a set of preconceptions, stereotypes and ideas about what people look like and this is perhaps what they are really communicating. If we look at Vaught's Practical Character Reader's honest face, as seen at the top of this post, we see perhaps one end of a stereotype scale that the crime victim and police artist are measuring their ideas against. For instance in many experiments in relation to emotions instigated by facial type, people respond that they trust and find honesty in faces that are more symmetrical. Symmetry is at the core of a police artist's working system. Below is a verbatim account given by a working police artist of how they set out to do their work, the ruled pad is what they use as a starting point for every drawing. 

A police artist's ruled drawing pad

"I start the drawing by having the witness go through the FBI’s Facial Identification Catalog feature by feature. I always start by having the witness look through the FIC for the shapes of the suspect’s head, or face. This is very important because the shape of the head is one of the three main components to getting close to the suspect’s actual look. I stress it’s importance. I set my drawing up on my paper before every composite. This is also important because it keeps all the drawings to a certain scale and helps with symmetry".

"I then move on to the suspect’s eyes. I rush the witness just a little bit so they don’t make themselves crazy looking at all the different eyes. I explain the importance of choosing only the closest set of eyes. I let the witness know features can be changed, or fine-tuned, when the line drawing is completed. I make sure the witness understands they should concentrate but not get frustrated by all the choices".

"Once they choose a set of eyes, I sketch in the eyes and eye brows of the eyes they chose. I don’t want to nit-pick them on features. Eyebrows don’t normally make or break a likeness so, if they remember specifics I will note it, if not I skip the eyebrow section".

"I use a regular 2B pencil because it is harder than my finishing pencil, erases easier, and draws lighter. I have the witness start looking at noses while I sketch the eyes. I draw the nose while I have the witness looking for a mouth".

"I draw the mouth while the witness looks through the chins. I draw the chin and sides of the face, after referring back to the shape of the face. I always draw the top of the head with just the forehead. I always put generic ears on, unless they were a feature the witness remembered specifically".

"I get the witness to find the hairstyle somewhere in the book. Once the line drawing is completed I have the witness look it over. I make changes by erasing with the kneadable eraser and re-sketching until the drawing is as close to the suspect as the witness can remember. I have the witness rate the line drawing on a scale of one to ten, "ten" being a portrait (really close), and "one" being no where near close. Now, with the line drawing as close to the suspect as the witness can remember, I add skin tone and shading". 

"I use a 9b woodless pencil because it is soft, goes on dark, and smudges easily. I get good contrast between lights and darks. Shading takes practice. Achieving a good skin tone is important because it will make the composite believable. After, the composite has skin tone it should appear closer in the rating scale, or at least no change". 

In the example above it is interesting to see how the artist leads the crime victim through a series of decision making choices, ones that must influence the final outcome. 

What the artist is doing is very closely modelled on the 'Photo-fit' kit. 

You can of course download an app to do this on your phone

The Photo-fit' kit

The Photo-FIT kit for police forces was derived from the work of Jacques Penry. In the video clip below you can see him at work. The video is a timely reminder of how social convention was often thought of as being fact and that old beliefs in physiognomy, or the practice of assessing a person's character or personality from their outer appearance persisted for many years after they were shown to be false. 

Jacques Penry describes his system

Physiognomy as a 'science' was developed Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801), his four volumes of 'Physiognomic Fragments' were popular throughout Western Europe, and they began to influence how people literally pictured themselves. In Central Europe, there was an obsession with silhouette pictures, usually created by cutting a person’s profile out of black cardboard. Lavater advocated the use of this system because it made face profiles easily measurable.
Lavater’s apparatus for making silhouettes 

The 'proof' that you were an upstanding citizen could then after your portrait had been made, be framed and put on your wall. 

Portrait by Robert Friend

Certain artists, such as Robert Friend, developed the silhouette portrait as a specialism and just as all the other elements in the images he made are indicators of class and status, the profile itself would have been slightly adjusted to ensure that the person depicted had the right sort of facial shape. 

Our continued need to control how we look in relation to how facial features are read within society means that for instance, because selfies distort the face many people are undergoing plastic surgery on their noses in order to make them smaller. Mobile phone photographs misrepresent looks, because from the distance of an arms length, most lenses will make the nose appear bigger in proportion to the rest of the face. People who are not photographers don't realise that camera lenses are not the same as normal eyesight. However the selfie becomes the 'reality' and is measured by social convention and that is itself determined by very old ideas that are still rooted in concepts that came from physiognomy. 

There is something weird about all these depictions of people. They are either abject in the sense that measured 'people' are completely without pride or dignity; or they are about lack of self worth. Julia Kristeva in 'the Powers of Horror' states that the abject refers to the human reaction to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. These images of faces seem to encompass all of these definitions and yet at the same time they reach out into a western European past that shows a continuing need to measure and determine ourselves through measurement. According to Foucault, knowledge is only possible within a vast system of power relationships that allow that knowledge to come to be. I.e. society allows these strange readings to continue and be used as if they are 'knowledge' because some powerful people find it useful. 

In 1902 Vaught's 'Practical Character Reader' was published. It's hard to believe that this is a Twentieth Century publication, as it seems almost Medieval in its reasoning. 

It is interesting to compare and contrast the total humbug of Vaught's 'Practical Character Reader' above with the images below as set out by a contemporary company advertising its skills in plastic surgery. 

These images are meant to demonstrate how rhinoplasty can improve your facial harmony

A repose frontal mask

Some experts on facial harmony use a measuring system based on the golden ratio, the one above does that. You are asked to overlay the Repose Frontal Mask (also called the RF Mask or Repose Expression Frontal View Mask) over a photograph of your own face to help you apply makeup, to aid in evaluating your face for facial surgery, or simply to see how much your face conforms to the measurements of the Golden Ratio.

It is not a far remove from stating that broad headed humans and animals are vicious or people with convex curves to their noses are deceitful, to stating that a broad nose or one with a convex curve is un-harmonious. As we will see when we come to the 
main anthropometric points for facial harmonisation, the faces that 'scientists' use to take the measurements from, fit a very narrow stereotype, and by extension when we begin to look at equity in facial recognition technologies, we find that these technologies were once again invented by people who see white faces as the norm and the further away from that norm we get the less accurate is the technology. No matter how far measurement is taken in order to develop objectivity, it would seem to be obvious that we cant escape bias and subjectivity in our reading of faces. If so it is probably much better just to accept that and spend more time exposing ourselves to other people's ideas of beauty and character, so that at least we come to realise that what we think is only a point of view and that that old cliche 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' has more going for it than we tend to think. 

Measurement and faces is a long running concern. Durer's 'Four Books of Human Proportions' ('Vier Bücher von Menschlicher Proportionen), is another attempt to set out to give mathematical precision to the visualisation of faces. 


Durer, like the forensic police artist, was attempting to develop a system that could capture the almost indefinable essence of what it is to be an individual. 

Our current obsession with faces and the selfie, as already suggested, leads us into plastic surgery, an area where facial measurement is an obsession, such an obsession that it has led to a specific discipline, 'faciometrics'. Faciometrics consists of making direct measurements from predefined anthropometric points. In order to do this a facial ruler is used and measurements linked to standardised references for quantitative analysis. The relationship between these measurements then guides facial interpretation. A Practical Guide for Orofacial Harmonisation, states that 'with these normative parameters, we can guide harmonisation procedures and recover facial proportions, making facial features more similar to the reference.' 'In this way, we will achieve more individualised planning that will be a more assertive approach in the proposed treatment.'  See: https://www.mathewsopenaccess.com/full-text/faciometrics-a-practical-guide-for-orofacial-harmonization

Beauty Setup ruler (A) Caliper (B)

The table below sets out the main anthropometric points for facial harmonisation.






A point at on the hairline in the midline of the forehead


Most prominent midpoint between eyebrows



Inner commissure of palpebral fissure (left and right)




Outer commissure of palpebral fissure (left and right)



The black circle in the center of the iris.


The midline point of the nasal root and nasofrontal region.



Most prominent midpoint of nasal tip

Nasal Alare



Most lateral point of alar contour (left and right)




The point of the most lateral soft tissue overlying the zygomatic arch (left and right).



Midpoint of columellar base at junction of upper lip

The point on the midline of greater concavity in the facial contour of the upper lip, between the subnasale point and the upper lip.




The point at each elevated margin of the philtrum just above the vermilion line

Labiale superius


The midpoint of the vermilion line of the upper lip



Midpoint of the labial fissure between gently closed lips



Lateral extent of labial commissure (left and right)



The midpoint of the lower vermilion line




The most lateral point on the mandibular angle (gonial angle). Its location is close to that of the bony gonion. (left and right)


The point on the midline with greater concavity on the facial contour of the lower lip, located between the lower lip and the soft chin. It is the deepest point of the mentolabial fold.



The most anterior midpoint of the chin.



The lowest point on the midline of the soft tissue of the chin. This is the lowest point in the measurement of facial height.

Within a few moments we have moved from the abject to a set of concerns that are all about beauty. Durer was looking for harmonic proportion, and so is the plastic surgeon. The drawings done by the police forensic artists are an attempt to gain control of what is unknown, an attempt to find the criminal face, a project I would have thought doomed by subjectivity. But so are the standards of beauty we see set out in the supporting information for those dealing with faciometrics. These images, usually of white women, are yet another problematic concept. The unconscious bias in our actions and beliefs, is not in fact unconscious, its pretty easy to see that the models these facial features are based on are of a certain type and the type reflects the dominant characteristics of the people who control the technology. 

Drawing as both witness and control shows us that what we would normally see as activities outside of fine art drawing as a discipline, are in fact areas that highlight issues for any artist doing something as apparently straightforward as making an image of someone's face. As soon as I begin to draw I'm reminded of those hours of practice as a student, always being told to measure the situation again, always been pushed towards an idea of accuracy. Strangely the more you were able to grasp things like perspective and get what you were drawing 'right' the more you were asked to now push past superficial 'likeness' and to now look for the action of perception, the traces of head movement that you initially had tried to iron out but which now became vital to the 'life' of the looking and its capture in the drawing. 

Drawing of a face using eye tracking technology

What we are actually doing when we look at a face is several things at once. Initially checking fight or flight impulses, which will be done almost before you can begin to think about what you are doing, and then checking out a whole host of other bits of incoming information, status and class, usefulness, sexual interest, kinship, interest in me, similarity and difference, etc. etc. and as we do this we scan, trying to pick up changes in eye shape, frowning, smile lines etc etc so that we can establish a proper relationship with this encountered other, one we can build upon even further when we both open our mouths. But look at how different the static measured drawings are to the drawings measured by eye tracking technology. It is now much harder to tell what sort of person we are looking at because we are concerned with action and a series of events and not an isolated moment. 

I have recently been exploring portraiture myself, an area of art practice that is full of clichés and a perceived need for 'likenesses' and one that on the whole I have always suggested students steer well clear of, but people persist in making them, so rather than avoid the problem, I've decided to  tackle it head on. The first issue of course being 'likeness'. Likeness nearly always comes up when in conversation with someone from outside of the art business. "It looks just like a photograph" being many people's judgement call when it comes to likeness and of course the best way for an image to be "just like a photograph" is to work from one. This personally seems a redundant exercise so I never use photographs. Likeness is also measured against a normally seen static image, so I never ask my sitters to keep still, I just respond to the interaction of an exchanged conversation and as materials come into play I let the materials interact with myself and what I am experiencing. The images therefore become records of time spent with someone, rather than depictions of them. This feels much more honest and about people or encounters rather than renderings and copies. I want to avoid ways of working that tend to get people looking at themselves as if seen in a mirror, and checking for likeness. I want people to begin looking at the images as if they were new things, new figures formed from paint and ink and pens and brushes, things that talk their own language and which you have to look at very carefully if you want to listen to what they are saying. 

From an ongoing series of encounters with people

Drawing and photography or an attempt to think about why someone might work from a photograph

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Tim Ingold's 'Lines'

Lines: a brief history

A while ago when reporting on a lecture I went to given by Tim Ingold, I suggested that his two books on line were an essential read. ‘Lines: A Brief History’ and ‘The Life of Lines’ both open out our thinking about drawing into the theatre of life itself and help those of us that draw to invest our drawings with a wide range of possible meanings. I also stated at the time that I would provide a summary of the two books and give an indication of possible ways to use them.

Ingold, T. (2016) Lines a Brief History London: Routledge

In 'Lines a Brief History' Ingold points out that a wide range of human activities including walking, weaving, observing, storytelling, singing, drawing and writing all need to proceed in linear directions and that embedded into the very language that we talk about these things are line metaphors. For instance in order to tell a story we move events from A to B, we stretch out our sentences into lines of text. As we walk we create lines, both physically, (Richard Long makes lines by walking through grass, but so do we all.) as well as metaphorically. The old idea of the Wyrd for instance uses the image of an invisible line that is connected to you from birth, (a sort of ghost of the umbilical cord), as you move through life this line entangles itself around all the people and things you interact with, eventually weaving a cloth that is literally the tapestry of your life. In this book Tim Ingold imagines a world in which everything is interwoven or interconnected by lines and lays the foundations for a completely new discipline: the anthropological archaeology of the line.

Ingold is very much a polymath and uses a wide range of sources to illustrate his points, including archaeology, classical studies, art history, linguistics, psychology, musicology, philosophy and drawing.

Ingold's book is a great help when writing artist's positioning statements. He uses visual metaphors to demonstrate that you can take a concept and use it across many different disciplines to illuminate the way that human beings think, and reminds us that thinking itself begins with embodied experiences. For instance the idea of the 'Wyrd' begins in the actual experience of one human being being linked to another by a 'line' or umbilical cord. He points out that one of the earliest uses of vegetable fibres was to twist them together to create lines, lines that we call threads, strings or ropes. As we began to use these lines of thread, the various uses we put them to allowed us to think about different things. This is an extended mind theory which suggests that we use the stuff of the world to develop ideas or trains of thought. Threads allow us to weave ideas together, strings to tie them together and rope to scale up and over them. For instance lets say we are fishing using a line and rod, we might develop all sorts of ideas that begin with the idea of a connection between one thing and another. A line physically connects two things together, but the way it does varies. Alfred Gell introduced us to the ‘spring-hook fishing trap’ from Guyana. It consists of a fishing line linked to a bent tree branch, which is held in place by an easily displaced notch, one that the fish in effect 'trips' as it pulls on the line. When the fish bites down on the bait, its mouth is caught on the hook and in its struggle to get away it un-notches the held down branch, which springs upright, its violent release throwing the fish up into the air, leaving it dangling. In Guyana it is known as ‘the trap that turns fish into fruit’. One minute the fish is swimming and whoosh! The next minute it is hanging like fruit from a tree. As a metaphor for the harsh often sudden confrontation of death within life it is very powerful, just as easily read by Western European art audiences as fishermen from Guyana. Alfred Gell is another anthropologist which I presume is why he is also read extensively by artists. Anthropologists watch how a society thinks and as outside observers often without a good knowledge of that society's verbal language, they will often see how things are used by a society to think with, much easier than that society itself. I.e. they are in a very good position to observe the extended mind at work and the extended mind theory is as far as I'm concerned essential to an understanding of how art works. What you make allows your audience to 'see' an idea, not just to think about a concept in the head, but to physically know it. Most of Ingold's references rely on the extended mind theory and for someone making physical objects that have ideas embedded within them, his insights can be a real help, especially when trying to find the right words with which to explain how something you have made relates to life's experiences. 

The Life of Lines

Ingold, T. (2015) The life of lines London: Routledge

In 'The Life of Lines' Ingold takes us on a journey through movement, knots, weather, atmosphere and surfaces, eventually coming to what for myself was a very important conclusion: "to human is a verb." In order to live, every being must put out a line, and in life these lines tangle with one another. This book is a study of the life of these lines and how they can be variously entangled. Following on from Lines: A Brief History, the book includes meditations on life, ground, weather, walking, imagination and what it means to be human.

The first section argues that our world of life is woven from knots, and not built from blocks. He shows how the principle of knotting and weaving underwrite both the way things join with one another, in walls, buildings and bodies, and the composition of the ground and the knowledge we find there. (Think of the way plant roots entangle themselves into and with the soil)

In the second section, Ingold argues that to study living lines, (you could just say moving through life leaves traces and that these can be read as lines), we must also study the weather. He asks what is common to walking, weaving, observing, singing, storytelling and writing, and decides that the answer is atmosphere, or particular types of weather. He then develops a meteorology that seeks the common denominator of breath, time, mood, sound, memory, colour and the sky. This section opens out an awareness of our emotional attachment to experience. For instance a 'pathetic fallacy' is often used to describe something non human using a human emotion. The weather in particular can be given human emotions to reflect mood. John Ruskin introduced the term and explained it with an analysis of a poem:

They rowed her in across the rolling foam—
The cruel, crawling foam...

Ruskin points out that "the foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind which attributes to it these characters of a living creature is one in which reason is unhinged by grief." He goes on to state; "Now, so long as we see that the feeling is true, we pardon, or are even pleased by, the confessed fallacy of sight, which it induces: we are pleased, for instance, with those lines ... above quoted, not because they fallaciously describe foam, but because they faithfully describe sorrow". (From Modern Painters)
In some ways Ingold's text could be critiqued in a similar way, it works at its best when the
analogies he uses ring true.

In the third section Ingold takes lines into human social life. He shows that for life to have meaning, the things we do must be framed within the interconnectedness of the lives we build. In continually answering to one another, these lives enact a principle of correspondence that is fundamentally social, the knotting together of our experiences as our life lines become entangled together being a process and a doing, rather than a thing that can be isolated out of the totality of the experience.

Again I found Ingold very useful, especially in the way he articulates the problems that emerge from a world dominated by scientific objectivity and social isolation. His reminder that nouns separate one thing from another being something that has had a particularly deep impact on my thought. 

If you are writing a positioning statement perhaps Tim Ingold is at his most useful when you want to humanise what you are doing. He has a way of writing that might not be scientifically verifiable, but which comes across as a heartfelt desire for everyday life to be the focus and centre out of which all meaning is made. He is after all an anthropologist and that's what they do, study human lives. 

This is Tim Ingold on walking, in this case on walking a city's pavements. 
“I have but one further observation to make in this regard, which brings me back to the subject of paving. It is simply that boots impress no tracks on a paved surface. People, as they walk the streets, leave no trace of their movements, no record of their having passed by. It is as if they had never been. There is, then, the same detach-ment, of persons from the ground, that runs as I have shown like a leitmotif through the recent history of western societies. It appears that people, in their daily lives, merely skim the surface of a world that has been previously mapped out and constructed for them to occupy, rather than contributing through their movements to its ongoing formation.” (From 'Being Alive') 

Ingold by implication, also reminds us that by wearing shoes we no longer touch the world. It is only on those rare occasions such as on sunny days on the beach, that we take off our shoes and socks and feel the ground beneath us with our feet. As he puts it, the situation reflects that in our society we have seen the 'elevation of head over heels'. In respect to this he then finally reminds us that in Japanese there exists the concept of 'kawada', (little hill) which represents a human being's fundamental orientation towards the ground and he warns us not to forget that we come from the ground and will return to it. 

See also:

Tim Ingold: On not knowing and paying attention

Tim Ingold's keynote speech for the art and materiality conference 

In praise of verbs

To use or not to use theory

The exhibition 'lines a brief history'