Houston's new full-time forensic artist explains the trick to his craft

Thurston Johnson is a police officer who draws for a living. He boasts 20 years of police work, no formal education in fine arts, and a passion for helping people feel safe re-living their worst moments.

"I'm a forensic artist for the Houston Police Department," says Johnson, speaking with FOX26 mere months after being promoted to the position full time. 

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"I've always been fascinated with art. The previous forensic artist, Louis Gibson, saw some of my artwork and said, ‘You need to be a forensic artist,’" Johnsons explains.

Lois Gibson holds The Guinness Book of World Record for "The World's Most Successful Forensic Artist." She has surpassed more than 1,000 suspects identified with her art while working at the Houston Police Department. Her retirement in 2021 after nearly four decades on the job marked an opportunity for Houston to welcome its next full-time forensic artist. Johnson credits Lois with helping him learn the art quickly.

Johnson says he primarily works with crime victims to re-create an image of the person who wronged them. 

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For Johnson, the trick to being an excellent forensic artist lies in the ability to help victims feel safe and heard while recalling the face of a suspect. These sessions can be emotional. Johnson leverages his multiple decades of police work, and recent years of intense forensic art training, to do work that carries grave consequences.

"To me, I like pressure. I don't see it as pressure. I feel like I'm helping out a citizen of the city of Houston solve their own case," says Johnson.

Johnson and his colleagues don't just help Houstonians. The Houston Police Department offers its forensic art services to any law enforcement agency in Southeast Texas. The case does not have to be Houston-based.


While witness memory sketches take up most of his time, Johnson also helps families who believe their missing loved one may still be alive.

"With missing persons, you know what they look like, but you're trying to age them because they've been missing for a while," Johnson explains. "Usually you age progress a missing person every three to five years to come up with what they might look like, so there's maybe a chance they could be found."

How does he do it? Johnson says it's about more than just wrinkles. "Your ears and nose never stop growing," he chuckles.

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According to the Texas Center for the Missing there were 46,581 missing person reports in Texas alone over 2021. Of them, 33,774 were children.

When asked what it's like to present an age progression photo to a family for the first time, Johnson says, "They're very excited. They're hopeful. They're grateful that we are able to help."

A powerful thing to offer, from a man who never studied fine art. 

"I loved art," says Johnson. "I found it fascinating. I used to draw all the time. My family is full of artists and musicians, so I'm just picking up where they left off."

This interview is part of the ongoing FOX 26 Series: The Missing. Through a partnership with the Texas Center for the Missing, FOX 26 is shining a spotlight on some of the thousands of missing person cases that sit unsolved on any given day in Houston and Texas. We invited you to help solve them, and introduce you to some experts helping do the same. Check out the full series on our website.