BiologyDigital ArtIllustrationMedicineScienceSculpture

Reconstructing a Face

We did some weird projects in grad school, and the bulk of them were in Ray’s class. Ray is a really cool guy, and even has an IMDB page. He taught intro techniques for anaplastology, or facial prosthetics (post on this subject coming next month). We cast our own ears in dental stone and then had to sculpt their mirror images in clay. This is something you’d have to do to make a prosthetic for a patient who lost an ear to skin cancer or in a burn accident.

My sculpted ear is on the left, my cast one is on the right.

We later cast our entire faces in dental stone, and then digitized them into 3D models that could be rendered in an animation program. We had our faces photographed from all angles to create the texture map. This was easily the most humbling and starkly realistic self-portrait I’ve ever had to make.

As anyone who understands pareidolia knows, faces are just endlessly fascinating and compelling. All of these projects kind of changed how I perceived them too. This was especially true for the independent study I decided to do in facial reconstruction. Ray had a spare skull (I mean, who doesn’t?), a book about the subject, clay, an armature, and tools; so I was all set.

The book was written by Karen Taylor with help from one of the most well-known experts on facial reconstruction, Betty Pat. Gatliff. She still teaches workshops a few times a year which I probably should attend some day.

Betty Pat. Gatliff, forensic sculptor and medical illustrator

The first step is to determine the gender and approximate ethnic background of the skull, much like Temperance Brennan would do on Bones. Granted, I don’t have a PhD in forensic anthropology. Gender is determined largely from the jaw, since men tend to have heavier, squarer jaws and women tend to have smaller, more gracile jaws. Male skulls will also tend to have a more prominent brow and other muscle attachment landmarks (like the nuchal crest at the back of the skull), females skulls will be smoother in these areas.

Without getting all white supremacist and anthropometry-crazy about it, it can be said that there are certain features that tend to show up in different geographical places of ancestral origin. These include the depth and shape of the orbital sockets, the amount of prognathism, or the width of the nasal aperture. These are the combined results of evolution and climate. The reason for doing this kind of profiling is so that you know which set of skin thickness data to use for a given skull. We decided that the skull we had was probably from India or somewhere in Southeast Asia. This is part art and part science, and the finished face will be an approximation based on averages and best guesses.

I photographed the skull and traced it in a vector program to get the image below. I projected the profile using the skin thickness measurements. Admittedly, it’s hard to guess what the soft tissue of the nose would have looked like, but measuring the nasal spine and making anthropological inferences gets you pretty close. It’s generally close enough to identify a skull as coming from a certain missing person, which is obviously the usual reason for creating a reconstruction. There are other reasons, Ray had also reconstructed the face of a mummy, for the sake of science and awesomeness.

From this step, I made a cardboard template to be attached at the sagittal plane of the face. At this point, the skull is supported on an armature at a specific angle such the bottom of the orbit (or eye-hole) lines up with the top of the external auditory meatus (or ear-hole).

Next, I did the step that you always see in movies with the little rubber markers. There are set landmarks on the skull, some with weird names like stomion and nasion. The average thickness measurements have been determined by anatomists sticking pins into the faces of cadavers of known ancestry (so nice to think it didn’t hurt). The bits of eraser are cut to these thicknesses and labeled with numbers. These are then carefully glued to the skull. Ray plucked out some occulars from an old reconstruction so that mine could have eyes (and look really creepy before I got all the clay on). It’s amazing how easy it is to make your reconstruction look deranged if the eyes aren’t angled properly. Like Michael Shannon in Boardwalk Empire-style deranged.

The next proper step is to roll out strips of clay that fit smoothly between your markers and are the proper thicknesses at each marker as you place them evenly and smoothly on the skull. What actually happens when it’s the end of the semester and you are trying to finish your project on time is that you smoosh the clay on in bits, still reaching the appropriate thickness, but leaving a slightly more mottled appearance to the finished surface. Clay is also built up to the edge of the cardboard nose template, and nostrils and lips are sculpted.

The neck muscles (mainly the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius) are sculpted for completeness and structural support. Then you add finishing touches like ears, eyelids, eyebrows and possibly a wig, though I left my reconstruction bald and beautiful. Here were the final results.


This was an oddly intimate project, and I found myself wondering about this person I was attempting to recreate. I was now unable to look at (living) faces without thinking about how they were shaped by evolution, hormones, and climate. I watched Bones until the plot lines started to get irritating. And, to this day, I find myself wondering what my own skull looks like.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to do reconstructions for a coroner’s office or police department, but it was certainly satisfying and fascinating to try at least once.

Photo Credits: Me, University Outreach Forensic Art Workshops


Katie is an animator and illustrator of human innards living in Chicago.

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