Melissa Dring keeps her kit in a black leather briefcase with a silver catch. Flip it open and inside you will find a curious selection of criminological ephemera. There is the forensic artist’s tattered copy of the FBI Facial Identification Catalog, filled with black and white photographic references to “triangular” heads, “buggy” eyes and “average” noses.

There is a piece of card with a scribbled list of questions such as, “Does he seem the sort of person to remember his mum’s birthday?” or “Are they a country boy at heart?” And there are witness statements on which the signatory must declare how close a likeness Dring’s sketch is to the person they have just described. “Dead close” is what she shoots for.

Stuffed in the front pocket, beside the pens and pastels, are two small soft toys: a fluffy dog and a tiger. These can be a comfort to those she meets, many of whom will have experienced something awful. It’s not just children, she says. Even lorry drivers have reached into her open briefcase for the plushies.

She also carries a jar of home-made strawberry jam wrapped in paper. It took Dring a while to settle on the best gift to bring her witnesses: something that was not inappropriately celebratory but was comforting. An object that clearly differentiated her from the police. The jam is always the first item she takes out of the case.

Dring, 78, is perched on a low wooden seat in her studio at her Northampton home. She is wearing a black velvety jumper dress and dangling pearl earrings. Her hair is dyed deep red. Postcards, photographs and sketches line the walls and crisp winter light floods in through a large window. Outside, her cat, Humphrey, can be seen trotting round the garden. I sit on a stool and twiddle my toes in a pair of bright red slippers that Dring handed me on arrival.

It is all rather lovely. But as we discuss her work, the tabletop becomes layered with papers indicative of some of the worst traits of humanity. Wanted posters, crime reports. “Have you seen this man?” The trappings of Dring’s 35-year-career drawing people she has never seen, in the hope that you might recognise them.

If you read the papers or watch the news, it is likely that you have encountered her sketches. Those drawings of the suspicious men seen near the Portuguese resort where three-year-old Madeleine McCann went missing in 2007? Dring’s hand. Last year, she created an updated portrait of a man believed to be one of Scotland’s most notorious murderers for the BBC documentary The Hunt for Bible John. There are hundreds more of her sketches out there. Suspects in murders, rapes, abductions, their images exhibited on the front pages of tabloids, in televised appeals and stuck on the walls of police stations.

Melissa Dring in front of a portrait by her father of her, aged four
Melissa Dring at home. Behind her is a painting by her father of her, aged four © Sabine Hess

They may only have captured your attention for a second, if at all. The artist’s impression or police sketch has become such a media staple that even if you did pause to scrutinise the details — and scanned your mind for a trace of recognition — you probably gave little thought as to how the image came about. Despite efforts to systematise the process by which they are created, through science, computers and psychology, these works remain a fragile experiment in human memory.

Dring is one of a small number of people who keep the profession alive in the UK. In an era of CCTV and facial recognition technology, national fingerprint databases and mobile phone tracking, her job remains an intensely personal part of the investigative process. It relies on a delicate dance between the mind of a stranger and the hand of an artist.

The police have called on artists to assist with the identification of suspects since the late 19th century. Percy LeFroy Mapleton was one of the first people to be depicted in this way when the Daily Telegraph published a caricature-like portrait of him in June 1881. The 21-year-old had been seen staggering out of a first-class carriage on the London to Brighton express covered in blood. He soon became the prime suspect in the murder of Isaac Gold, a retired stockbroker whose body was later found in a railway tunnel. Mapleton gave the police the slip but the drawing helped generate a great deal of public interest that contributed to his arrest.

During the 20th century, the police sketch — sometimes known as a “composite” because it is pieced together from individually described component parts — became a familiar part of the visual culture of crime and policing. Artists’ impressions have been published of many notorious criminals, from the Night Stalker, a serial killer who terrorised California in the mid-1980s, to the Unabomber, who, starting in the late 1970s, ran a 20-year bombing campaign across America.

In 1995, the FBI released sketches of two suspects as part of the investigation into the bombing of the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in which 168 people were killed. One of these sketches, a portrait of “John Doe 1”, was soon identified by the owner of the Dreamland Motel in Junction City, Kansas, where the suspect had stayed. His name was Timothy McVeigh.

Dring first stumbled into her role in 1986, while working as a tutor at the Northampton School of Art. One day a telephone call was put through to her at home from the college. It was the local constabulary. A young woman had awoken to find a man in her bedroom, holding a knife and removing his clothes. Though the attack took place in near darkness, the perpetrator took the liberty of pausing to light his cigarette. Illuminated by a flame, his face had been visible to the victim. Perhaps, the police wondered, an artist could help draw it for them.

Dring had no experience of this sort of work but had been around portraiture her whole life. Her father, William Dring, was a talented artist who produced portraits for the War Artists Advisory Committee, a government agency tasked with creating an artistic record of the second world war. As a child, Dring sat for her father and watched him work via a mirror placed behind his easel. An oil painting of her four-year-old self, in a white dress and hairband, hangs above the sofa in her living room.

After two years at Winchester Art School she went to London to study at the Royal Academy Schools, where she met her late husband, Michael Little, a fellow artist and illustrator. Later they moved to Yorkshire to start a family before settling in Northamptonshire. It was hard work making a living as an artist. The call from the police was more than just a test of her ability, she says. “It was a commission.”

Within an hour of the call she was at the station sitting with the witness. The resulting sketch was not the most successful piece of work she has produced — it would be years before the suspect was arrested, thanks to DNA testing — but the police seemed impressed. “I became a new spanner in the toolbox,” she says. Soon she was on 24-hour call, prepped to grab her pencils at any moment. Cases were coming in every couple of weeks, not just around Northampton but from departments up and down the country. She had her first success when a drawing she produced of a rape suspect was identified by both his estranged wife and his probation officer, and he was arrested.

But Dring felt she was improvising. At the time, there was no formal training in the UK for a forensic artist. A detective suggested she have a chat with John Worsley, a war artist and illustrator who had produced thousands of sketches for Scotland Yard that were said to have led to many arrests. Worsley obliged, but his practice was idiosyncratic and his advice was rooted in traditional portraiture. “It was like talking to my father,” Dring says. “It was the more sciencey part I needed help with.”

There was only one educational establishment that met the brief: the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. In 1984, it had launched the first course of its kind for police artists. Dring heard about it through her contacts in the police and, after a meeting at the US embassy, she was invited to attend, gratis. It was a far cry from the Royal Academy. When she arrived at the formidable complex in Quantico in November 1988, it felt like landing on another planet. “Have you got a gun, ma’am?” the officer at the gate asked. “No,” Dring replied. “I’m English!”

Melissa Dring’s studio, including some of her traditional portraits as well as her forensic sketches
Dring’s home studio, with some of her traditional portraits as well as her forensic sketches © Sabine Hess

For the next fortnight she trained alongside a cohort of small-town cops brushing up their sketching skills. Each day they would practise drawing from verbal descriptions and pair up to take turns playing witness or artist. They were drilled in the cognitive interview technique, developed in the 1980s to stimulate as many retrieval cues for a memory as possible. Dring returned home with the skills she required — and the FBI Facial Identification Catalog she keeps in her case.

Even as artists’ impressions became part of detective work in the first half of the 20th century, investigators were keen to find an alternative. The police wanted something that could be operated in house, a tool that neither depended too much on the descriptive ability of a witness, nor on the presence of an experienced portraitist.

The first candidate was the Identikit, which was developed in 1959 by a Los Angeles police detective and consisted of an illustrated set of 37 noses, 52 chins, 102 pairs of eyes, 40 lips and 130 hairlines, all drawn on transparencies that could be layered into an image of a suspect. Professor Paul Lawrence, a criminal justice historian at the Open University, says the system was beset with many practical problems when it was first implemented in the UK, such as its lack of British hairstyles and bowler hats. The Home Office found it to be slow and inefficient, and only effective in 5 to 10 per cent of cases.

It was soon replaced by the Photo-Fit, which was created for the Home Office in the late 1960s by Jacques Penry, a “facial topographer”. Penry believed in physiognomy, a pseudoscience that suggests it is possible to intuit a person’s characteristics from their face alone. He used police mugshot catalogues to create a kit that consisted of photographic slides of the jaw line, mouth, nose, hairline, ears and eyes. There were approximately 500 variants of these parts that could be slotted together into a recognisable face. Again, it was not particularly effective. Research conducted in the late 1970s found that the results tended to yield a poor likeness. Yet it was widely used.

The images — whether an artist’s impression or a Photo-Fit — resonated at a time when news coverage of crime was becoming increasingly photographic and televised. They provided a “curious certainty” to an otherwise unreliable process, says Lawrence. “It conveys reassurance to the public, that we know what [the criminal] looks like and we can find them. I think the public has a very secure view of identification practices, whereas anyone who works in it knows how fragile and unreliable human recollection is.”

paintbrushes inside a bottle on top of a stool, inside Melissa Dring’s home studio
Some of the tools of Dring’s trade, at her home studio © Sabine Hess

The trouble with systems that focus on individual features is that they don’t reflect the way we actually remember faces. We remember them not by their constituent parts, but as a whole. The flexibility and intuitiveness of an artist working with a witness tends to create a more convincing resemblance than someone shuffling together chins and eyebrows. When the artist is talented at drawing out details from a witness, the results can be astonishing. The drawings of Lois Gibson, a now retired American forensic artist who started sketching suspects in the 1970s after surviving a violent rape in her home, led to a record-breaking 1,266 correct identifications between 1982 and 2021.

Charlie Frowd, professor of forensic psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, has spent many years researching the intricacies of facial identification processes. “We’ve consistently found that artists produce more identifiable composites than the older feature-based systems,” he says. “The way an interview is conducted is part of it. Uniquely, artists are good communicators, but artists also tend to work on groups of features. The approach is more like the way we recognise faces.”

To sit with a witness and draw a suspect is an intimate process that Dring has honed with years of practice. An atmosphere of trust and collaboration must be nurtured. For the witness, bringing the memory to the surface can be distressing. Dring often reassures them that this may be the last time someone will ask them in such detail about the person. After all, once it’s on the page, it’s there for all to see. She shows them her blank notebook. “My mind is as blank as these pages,” she tells them. “And what’s got to be on one of these pages at the end of the session is in your head. We’ve somehow got to get it out of your head, into my head, down my arm and on to the paper.”

Dring starts by asking about character and personality. “You can’t pile straight in and say: how big were his ears? Because unless they’re really big, flappy ones like Prince Charles’s, no one’s going to remember.” Instead, the initial questions might be: did the person seem like a couch potato? What sort of hobbies might they have? Did they seem funny or serious? Would they wash their socks? “All these questions are my way of getting them to think of the person,” says Dring. “And while they’re wondering if he washes his socks, without realising, the physical details are being assessed in their mind. We’re not talking directly about the shape of the face, but somehow it will be internally emerging.”

The facial features catalogue comes next. Recognition is easier than recall, not least because most of us lack the vocabulary to describe a person’s face in a meaningful way. Could you describe a family member’s nose? Probably not. Would you recognise it if you saw it? More likely. Dring will leaf through the catalogue with the witness, taking notes as they pick out features that click and discussing how they might need to be altered to improve the resemblance.

Only then is Dring ready to draw. She keeps her page concealed as she sketches a face. Meanwhile, she will ask the witness to replay the scene backwards, or imagine viewing the incident from a different location, as a bird for example. It keeps the memory warm. She needs a witness to really hold that image of the person in their mind’s eye.

When her drawings are finally revealed, it often provokes a visceral reaction. People flush, or they burst into tears. Once someone was violently sick. It is a cruel endorsement of a successful sketch; the shock of being faced with someone who may have been your attacker.

Dring recounts a case from 2010, when she was called by the police to meet a young Chinese student. The previous night, the student had been abducted and raped after leaving a city centre nightclub in the early hours. A man had bundled her into his car and driven her to a secluded industrial site before dropping her back in the centre as the sun began to rise.

The student lacked the language skills to be interviewed in English, so a translator was called in. The details of the rapist’s face were channelled through this chain of communication — from Chinese to English, from the translator to Dring and on to the page. The drawing was released to the media that evening. The following day, having seen his face staring back at him on the news, the man turned himself in.

Dring shows me her “hot hits” folder, a catalogue of sketches with an uncanny resemblance to the final suspects. There are a dozen or so she is particularly proud of. She points to one of a good-looking young man who had been arrested for trying to run someone down in his car. After the arrest “the policeman pulled the sketch out of his pocket and [the suspect] spotted it”, says Dring. “He said: ‘That’s nice. Can I have a copy to show my mum?’”

At times, though, the work can be draining, with a painful lack of closure. In 2007, Dring was contacted by a private investigation team working on the Madeleine McCann case and produced several drawings that received wide publicity. Jane Tanner, a friend of the McCanns who had been staying in the same resort in Praia De Luz when Madeleine went missing, had a memory of a man she had seen carrying a sleeping child that evening.

She came to Dring’s home in the hope that the artist could help draw out the details needed to identify him. They worked for hours. While they were able to produce a figure, including his clothes and hair, Tanner was unable to illuminate the face in her mind. “We were both in tears by the end of it,” says Dring.

Melissa Dring at home standing by the window
Melissa Dring at home in Northampton © Sabine Hess

The role of a forensic artist can encompass a wide range of disciplines. Dring has been employed to artificially age the features of long-missing individuals based on photographs, and breathe life into the faces of unidentified corpses. She can’t bear the smell of formaldehyde that can linger in the air at a morgue but she refuses to work from a photograph. “I think it’s essential to see the poor deceased myself,” she says. “To sit with them, draw them and pick up on any little clues that I can.”

In 2007, a new computerised system of identification, the EvoFIT, was launched in the UK. The creation of Frowd and a joint team of researchers from the universities of Central Lancashire and Stirling, it was built to take advantage of the holistic way we recognise people. Witnesses select whole faces that feel familiar to them, which are then merged into a singular form. At first the EvoFIT performed approximately as well as an artist’s impression, producing an identifiable face about 20 to 30 per cent of the time. In policing, says Frowd, that’s still pretty useful. Over the past decade, further research and refinements have pushed the EvoFIT hit rate to 60 per cent.

Does this mean the forensic artist could soon become extinct? Not necessarily, says Frowd. “I think there will always be a role there. These systems are not very adaptive, whereas art, by its very nature, is.”

Dring remains on call. Sometimes there is a detail about a face or an item of clothing that can’t be constructed without an artist. Or the witness simply isn’t happy with the outcome of a computer composite. “The police have often tried everything they can before they call me,” she says, laughing. “So, no pressure.”

On the day I visit, she has just been told a witness she was due to meet had backed out after feeling uncertain about being able to recall anything. Dring pushed back. “I told the officer that in all my career I had only had one person who couldn’t find a single detail of physical resemblance in their mind,” she says. “So they passed that on to the witness, and the job is back on.” A couple of weeks later, I call to ask how it went. “I think the witness was amazed to find details that gelled together,” she says. “We ended up with an eight-out-of-10 drawing, and the police are now using it.”

Dring continues to work as a traditional artist alongside her forensic work. But, when it comes to her identification jobs, she does not view the drawings as her own. She works for the police under her married name, Melissa Little, to create a sense of separation. “What I do for the police is not my work,” she says. “I’m just making the marks on paper for someone who can’t.”

Will Coldwell is a feature writer based in London

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