BBC’s Sherlock happened upon me on a rainy weekend in late October 2010. After reading about the series on a Tolkien message-board where it had been highly recommended by a friend, I ordered the DVDs of the first season and watched them over two days. I remember actually yelling at the computer in frustration when the credits of “The Great Game” were rolling. I wanted more. I’d been utterly sucked into the world of Sherlock and John and urgently needed some kind of continuation of their story. That very evening, I began to actively look for transformative works inspired by Sherlock, mostly fan fiction and fan art. I was desperate for anything that would provide a resolution of the dratted cliffhanger at the swimming pool and enable me to remain in that fictional universe. Over the course of the following weeks, I mutated into a passionate Sherlock fan. Five years, two more seasons and a special, several visits to London and a number of fan-meetings, cosplay shoots and conventions, over 500k words of fan fiction and more than 500 pieces of Sherlock-inspired fan art later, my fascination with this series shows no signs of waning.
A question I have asked myself repeatedly is: why? Why Sherlock? Why has it unleashed such a passionate – and productive – creative force in me and others? What makes this particular series so fascinating and moreover so inspiring for so many people? Plenty of meta has been penned to rationalize the impact Sherlock has had on pop-culture, analyzing the way it’s written, cast, acted, made. The following account is going to be highly personal. I will delve into my particular way of creating meta and reflecting on the source material, not by writing essays, but by creating transformative art. I will discuss examples of my art and by doing so attempt to find answers to the questions raised above.
I’ve considered myself a fan for a long time before Sherlock happened. As long as I can remember, I’ve created art inspired by stories that fascinated and moved me, starting out with Astrid Lindgren’s books as a young child and moving on through various fantasy and adventure stories until I encountered The Lord of the Rings and the writings of JRR Tolkien in the early 1990s. About ten years later, I joined the German Tolkien Society and its British counterpart, and became increasingly active in Tolkien fandom, chiefly by creating and exhibiting art at society events. My interest in Tolkien and particularly my artistic reflections of his works have clearly influenced my decision to make illustration my profession. To this day, I feel very much at home in Middle-earth and continue to draw and paint scenes from the Professor’s works, preferably those overlooked by other illustrators – or indeed Peter Jackson. My own Tolkien art is strictly book inspired. After I’d watched Jackson’s adaptations, I actively created art as a corrective to his version because I mourned those missed or, in my opinion, messed up opportunities of seeing my favorite scenes and characters depicted on the big screen. A similar desire to create alternative versions of characters, their interactions or storylines, or changing the setting of the canon story and putting it in a new context (or the original, literary one, in the case of my reaction to the Lord of the Rings movies) occurred to me later in the Sherlock fandom, both in the form of fan art and fan fiction. It is fair to say, however, that in the case of Sherlock I’m generally d’accord with how the characters and their arcs are portrayed and developed.
Illustration and speculation, reaction and parody
Before Sherlock, most of my fan artistic endeavors were chiefly based on descriptions in books (some Indiana Jones fan art drawn in the early 1990s aside). Now, suddenly, here was great wealth in imagery as primary source material – which, unlike Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, I wholeheartedly approved of. For a while I resisted the urge to draw anything Sherlock-inspired, not wanting to simply copy existing imagery. Ultimately, however, the desire to creatively contribute to that universe became too strong. I find it difficult to pin down why I felt (and still feel) this urge. Perhaps I see it as an opportunity to somehow ‘enter’ the fictional universe the characters inhabit. It certainly is a form of escapism (in the positive sense – actually, I strongly resent the negative connotations the term has acquired). For me, it also is a form of communication, of expressing my reactions to canon, both intellectual and emotional in a form that’s accessible to others. Back when I drew the first Tolkien illustrations, to show others how I imagined the world described so vividly in the books, to express what I found difficult or even impossible to put into words through imagery was clearly a major reason for beginning to created Tolkien-inspired imagery in the first place. With Sherlock, things are a little different, because here canon is an image-based medium. Here, I was drawn to scenes not shown in the series, or only hinted at and not expressed in the detailed way I wanted to see them: the domesticity and relationship of the protagonists, the small everyday scenes of their lives, their surroundings, the world they inhabit. In a way, I guess I’d like to pretend that I am accompanying them, their personal documenter and still photographer, a person with an exclusive view of what remains hidden in the show.
I started out with pencil sketches depicting some of the characters, before moving on to more elaborate compositions including props and backgrounds. I began to use more and more reference imagery such as still photographs and screenshots. This improved my naturalistic drawing skills. Moreover, since Sherlock is set in modern day London, I found myself facing the challenge of suddenly having to draw things I’d formerly tried to avoid out of lack of interest in their aesthetics, and the fact they were hardly relevant for my previous fantasy illustrations. These motifs included cars and other contemporary paraphernalia such as mobile phones or modern furniture (and certain kinds of wallpaper, although I’d always loved drawing intricate patterns). Interestingly, though, including these motifs in my repertoire and drawing increasingly using actual reference has made me appreciate the beauty of everyday objects, revealed if one takes the time to study them closely. In a way, this is what Sherlock does, too, both the character in order to make his deductions, and the series trying to illustrate his observations and thought processes.
Apart from the occasional drawing exercise where I basically tried to copy a still photograph or screenshot and recapture it in a traditional medium while staying as close as possible to the reference, I began playing with the characters’ poses, attributes and setting, often rearranging them to create scenes with narrative content not found in the series. Having read a considerable amount of fan fiction by that time, I also began illustrating these stories. One of my first fanfic illustrations was for Madlori’s famous Alone on the Water. This story is one of the best known in the fandom. Many fans have a love/hate relationship with it because it is heartbreakingly sad, dealing with Sherlock having terminal cancer. It touched me deeply and made me consider the protagonists in a different light. The story added to my understanding of what Sherlock and John could mean to each other, and actually do, in canon as well, only that in the show their love for each other is hinted at subtly, and, at least in the first season, not spelled out plainly. Illustrating scenes from the Alone on the Water gave me the opportunity to stay a little longer in the universe the author had created, and also to try and find an expression for the emotional impact it had on me through my art. Through the drawings, I also wanted to state my appreciation for the author’s mastery and my thanks to their efforts, hopefully more clearly and concisely than a well-meaning comment on their story could have expressed them.
Another of my very early illustrations is a speculative ‘what if’ of the resolution of the pool scene at the end of “The Great Game”, long before Series Two aired. As mentioned above, during the first hiatus after Series One, I was completely sucked into the universe of Sherlock. To be left hanging and having to wait for the next season and, hopefully, a resolution of the protagonists’ dilemma was vexing. From fandom interactions I knew I was not the only one feeling this way, so I contributed my own ideas, expressed through the drawing, of how I thought the scene might play out. It was one of the first images I posted on my then newly minted tumblr account.
Even though I do not like the (still) common distinction between artist and illustrator, I do consider myself someone who rather enjoys visualizing stories, thus creating ‘applied’ instead of ‘fine art’. Often, my works contain narrative elements inherent in poses, gestures, expressions, but also attributes and detailed backgrounds. Therefore it is not surprising that, given the wealth of transformative narrative works in the Sherlock fandom, over the years I have felt driven to create illustrations for a great number of fanfics, from ‘fix its’ and ‘what ifs’ to historical or fantastical Alternate Universes. At first, I relied on the writings of a great number of brilliant authors we have in this fandom (I still do), until eventually, I began to also write and illustrate my own fanfics. This provided the opportunity to try out diverse artistic styles to reflect the different moods and settings of the stories while still trying to keep them in line with the aesthetics of Sherlock which so fascinate me, such as the innovative cinematography with its often unusual camera angles, the atmospheric production design and the stylish, character-enhancing costumes.
One of my artistic projects was an exploration of Sherlock’s exploits after his Fall, illustrated by a series of stark pencil drawings (“Sherlock after the Fall,” parts of the Over/Under-series) with lighting, composition and textures strongly inspired by the look of the series. In my drawings, I often show the protagonist up close to capture his emotional state. The aesthetics of this project are inspired by Sherlock’s cinematography, particularly the camera angles and the lighting. Depicting the protagonist from short distance also means creating intimacy, almost implying that even though Sherlock is alone on his quest, the viewer (and I as the artist) is invited to accompany him, thus gaining exclusive access to his character and his emotional state. Already with my Tolkien illustrations I liked to play with the idea of functioning as a kind of stills photographer, a person to witness and document how the story unfolds. I often compose my artworks like camera shots: peeking at characters through windows, door frames, foliage; depicting dialogue-scenes with compositions reminiscent of over-shoulder shots or subjective camera angles; cropping characters or features of their surroundings in order to lead the viewer’s eyes; using blurred outlines and lack of detail in either fore- or background to suggest selective focus. Moreover, in my Sherlock after the Fall project, sticking close to Sherlock also meant not having to worry too much about drawing backgrounds which can be a chore. And of course it enabled me to concentrate on Sherlock’s unique (and beautiful) features.
Detailed colored pencil drawings illustrate my Magical Realism story “The Horse and his Doctor” in which Sherlock has been turned into a horse. As so often, inspiration for this story grew from a small thing, in this case a remark from a fellow fan on tumblr. I had posted a painting of a black unicorn, the cover of a children’s book commissioned from an Austrian publisher. The fan said that the unicorn reminded them of Sherlock. Perhaps it was the black coat or the long, curly mane. Whatever it was, this remark tickled the plot bunnies and made me think ‘what if’. What if Sherlock had been turned into an animal, a horse in this case, unable to talk but somehow keeping his brilliant mind and his personality? How would he communicate, and with whom? How did he end up being a horse? How do the other characters fit into this story? Bit by bit, things fell into place. Recently completed, the story now consists of thirteen chapters and is over a hundred thousand words long. To illustrate it, I tried to recreate a ‘traditional’ illustrative style appropriate for and reminiscent of a children’s book from the turn of the 19th century: colorful, detailed, somewhat whimsical drawings with narrative content, using a vertical format as would have been the case in late 19th and early 20th century book illustration when color plates were still printed on special paper. This way, I tried to capture the fairy-tale like, upbeat mood of the story.
My historical AU, Enigma, in which Sherlock is a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during WW2 is illustrated with watercolored ink drawings again inspired by art from the Golden Age of British illustration of the early 20th century, reminiscent of artists like Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac, and more recently Alan Lee, one of my favorite illustrators. I am, however, using a landscape format to allow for more filmic compositions. For this story, I also (re)created in-story art, such as one of Sherlock’s drawings and a vintage dance poster, the latter providing the opportunity to play around with period graphic design and typography to make it look fairly authentic.
Other than straightforward illustrations of Sherlock-inspired fan fiction, many of my works fall into the categories of parody and what I call ‘reaction art’. Both derive inspiration from a snippet of canon text, such as an expression, a line of dialogue, a remark from a character, or a piece of costume, a prop, a particular location. These are then transformed into a (hopefully) witty, amusing, thought-provoking or touching artistic comment, often combining Sherlock with imagery of or references to other fandoms.
An artist’s playground
Pencil, ink and watercolor are my preferred media when creating artwork. Since I have to squeeze my fan-arting hours in between a full-time teaching job and freelance work as an illustrator, I usually draw in my sketchbook, and whenever and wherever I can. I try to draw daily and am rarely seen without a sketchbook and pencil. Given these constraints, the formats I work on are fairly small, enabling me to finish works quickly, which is advantageous because I feel almost constantly inspired. Ideas for new art (or fanfic) can be triggered by small things: a particularly striking still photograph of a screenshot, a quote, a fan fiction story, some other film or piece of writing with parallels to Sherlock, a prompt, remark or comment from another fan, a picture or mention of a particular place – often but not exclusively in London – props or items, pieces of clothing… the list could go on. Sometimes, these sources of inspiration aren’t specifically based on the show or its fandom. Usually, I have a long to-do list of artworks scribbled down somewhere. I am lucky to rarely ever suffer from artist’s or writer’s block, but more often from the inability to draw or write because of ‘real life’ demands and therefore lack of time, which means that the backlog isn’t really getting any smaller.
In terms of style, I consider myself rather a draftsperson than a painter, focusing more on line than color, and preferring narrative detail over depictions of mood, as for example expressed through abstract line and color. All in all, my art is fairly naturalistic, although I rarely aim to achieve entirely photorealistic depictions (and am always in awe of those who have the patience to create them). Most of the time, I aim to work in a semi-naturalistic style that retains varying levels of abstraction. For this reason, I appreciate the particular propensity of both ink and watercolor to behave outside the artist’s control to some degree, and to enable the painter to suggest rather than dictate, and thus leave room for the readers’ (or viewers’) imagination. For me this opportunity is less present in very naturalistic, photorealistic artwork which often, because they look so ‘perfect’, seem to suggest that they are the only viable option of interpreting what they depict. In a way, this is what happened to many Tolkien fans when the movies were released: they found their own imagination of scenes and characters from the book compromised or indeed replaced by the movie versions. With Sherlock being a visual medium in the first place, the case is somewhat different – although of course the visual source material can be played with, abstracted or even discarded in favor of individual approaches. And since I tend to often illustrate fan fiction where the Sherlock characters are transferred back into a literal medium, I believe a style and aesthetic that retains the look and feel of a drawing to be more appropriate. If a reader does not agree with my interpretation, they may find it easier to accept it as just one artist’s imagination instead of the one and only possible rendition. That said, my style and the level of naturalism in my art tends to vary from project to project. There is a definite range to my works, also brought on from an exploration of different mediums and techniques, from very reduced, striking depictions to detailed renditions of particular characters and their surroundings. With Sherlock, I have found the ideal playground and indeed challenge to try out different media, techniques and styles, thus broadening my range and skills as an artist.
Challenge is a good term to describe my Sherlock-inspired art over the years. Because the canon material leaves so much room for interpretation – and also to play around and, basically, have fun with it – I have enjoyed taking part in fandom challenges such as “Let’s Draw Sherlock”. There, every month a new topic was set, ranging from Sherlockian re-imaginings of famous works of art (my above drawing, “Taxi”, is inspired by the Roman sculpture “Augustus of Prima Porta”) to color palette challenges and video- or computer games populated with Sherlock characters. These prompts often pushed me out of my comfort zone and inspired me to depict subjects I had never attempted before, try out new techniques (digital art) or revisit old ones such as storyboards, sequential art and animation, which I hadn’t dabbled in since university.
One of the first things which struck me about BBC’s Sherlock was the way contemporary London was portrayed, namely not just as a decorative backdrop where the odd landmark or tourist attraction would pop up, depicted for its aesthetic or dramatic effect. London emerged as an integral part of the story, a character in itself. Even though parts of Sherlock are shot in Cardiff and Bristol, they ‘feel’ right. Now, I am a passionate ‘London-phile’. I believe the attraction and fascination London has for me lies in its combination of old and new, traditional, historical and modern. It’s evident in the many layers London displays when centuries of the city’s growth and change, history and present can be seen in the odd mix of architecture or its multicultural inhabitants. Many of these features I find reflected in Sherlock, whether it’s in Sherlock’s and John’s wild dash through Soho or their investigation of a body on the banks of the Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral lit by early morning light in the background. In Sherlock, through the way London is shot, it becomes a living, exciting, mysterious, beautiful entity. I assume it has always played this part in the Sherlock Holmes canon, but I can’t remember having ever been made so aware of it, both of the light and splendor of contemporary London and of its dark, murky, dangerous underbelly.
It’s not all about the wallpaper, but I admit that the dressing of the 221B set played a huge part in my appreciation of the series. When I caught the first glimpse of the interior of the flat, I felt like John Watson, thinking, “This could be very nice”. Again it was the combination of old and new, the bold use of patterns, the clutter, the different styles of furniture and the general care and attention to detail that went into choosing and arranging props. The entire flat looks utterly real and lived in. ‘Willing suspension of disbelief’ is something I often have difficulties engaging in when a set or CGI backdrop look too artificial, or if – in a period drama or historical film the production design doesn’t seem quite authentic. The inaccuracies pull me out of the story and its universe and so spoil my enjoyment of them. This has never been an issue with Sherlock. I also have a thing for patterns, particularly regular, symmetrical ones, which means that the vast array of daring wallpapers used throughout the series does interesting things to my creative juices – even though they sometimes are a real pain to draw.
A lot has been said about Sherlock’s iconic Belstaff coat and the clothes of the characters in general. As somebody interested in historical reenactment and costuming in general (and who has spent several weeks sewing her own Sherlock coat inspired by the expensive original), the bold choice of using the particular coat which is both flamboyant and practical, elegant and functional, historical and modern struck a strong chord with me. Instead of just dressing the characters in some contemporary clothes in lieu of the Inverness cape and deerstalker associated with the traditional Sherlock Holmes, each garment tells a story and adds to the character, be it the Belstaff, John’s Haversack jacket and his jumpers, or Moriarty’s skull tie and Westwood suit. When it comes to drawing them, I particularly like the Belstaff because of its pattern that lends itself well to drawing techniques such as cross-hatching, either with ink or pencil. Another favorite subject of mine is Sherlock’s blue silk dressing gown, because of its color and shiny, flowing material, and the vertical stripes that make it easier to create plasticity and the illusion of a silky texture.
If the above mentioned features hadn’t been enough to suck me into the series, the cinematography alone would have done it. I’ve always been a very visual person. On the list of my favorite films, those I watch again and again are not famous for their story but for their atmosphere and ‘look’. Works like Days of Heaven, Le Hussard sur le toit (The Horseman on the Roof) and Lawrence of Arabia and feature strongly, also Carol and Master and Commander, to name only a few.
Sherlock is beautifully – and masterfully – shot. The lighting of the scenes is brilliantly effective and very atmospheric, the camera angles are often inventive and unusual without being too cocky and self-aware (at least in the first series). I adore the sometimes extreme close-ups and detail shots, so close, in fact, that only a small part of the shot remains in focus, leaving the rest blurry. This way, they seem to mirror how Sherlock sees the world. Through the cinematography the viewer is invited into his mind. These shots are also a good antidote to the current trend in blockbuster cinematography of having to show everything in clear focus, likely to make sure that none of the expensive CGI background is obscured. Decreasing the depth of field and focusing on particular aspects of in a shot, however, creates closeness, intimacy. It sucks the viewer into a fictional world and makes them follow the protagonists. In a show like Sherlock which deals so strongly with seeing, observing, looking closely, it’s vital that the camera does so, too, and so invites the viewer to follow Sherlock’s example to pay attention to detail, and to appreciate the beauty of our everyday surroundings.
Composition, framing and mise-en-scène in Sherlock are at times reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s love of symmetry (especially in my favorite episode, “The Great Game”), while at other times asymmetric compositions and the golden ratio are used to great effect. I remember squealing with delight when in “The Great Game” a scene occurs reminiscent in composition and lighting of the interiors of Jan Vermeer, one of my favorite painters. These little touches and attention to detail (one storyline of that particular episode deals with a fake Vermeer painting) endeared Sherlock’s cinematography to me even more, if that were possible.
Color, too, is utilized effectively and creatively. There’s the way the particular clear winter light of London is captured in blues and grays in the exterior shots of “The Great Game”. There’s the warm lighting of the interior scenes set in 221B, the reflections of London’s architecture on the windows of cabs, the glow of shop windows and the bokeh of headlights, and the scary glow of the pool contrasting Sherlock’s dark silhouette, or John’s nightmarish experience in the laboratory in “The Hounds of Baskerville”, atmospherically lit by flashing warning lights and the screen of his mobile phone. Many shots are simply very, very beautiful, works of art in themselves. They make me want to try and recreate the atmosphere in watercolor. An example is “Glow” (see above), painted from a behind-the-scenes photo which struck me because of its striking contrast of bright light, shadow and muted colors, and the way Benedict’s features are lit by the tablet’s screen.
The aesthetic appeal of the series also manifests itself in the innovative way graphics are used on screen, often complementing the composition. The typographer in me appreciates the choice of typefaces, sleek and contemporary, yet with a hint of tradition and a clear link to London (the title font on the iconic P22 Johnston Underground, originally designed for use on the Tube). The way they appear on screen furthers the fast, fresh look of the show, and making Sherlock’s deductions more immediate and accessible. In my fan books (such as Sherlock after the Fall) I try to recreate this close link between image and typography.
Apart from their obvious chemistry on screen which clearly adds to the appeal of the show, there is something utterly ‘drawable’ about the Sherlock actors and actresses, particularly Benedict Cumberbatch when he is styled and dressed as the protagonist. His appearance has been called ‘byronic’. I’ll simply call it inspiring. The way he is framed, coiffured, dressed and lit makes for extremely striking imagery, and his unusually proportioned face virtually cries out to be captured not just on film, but on paper as well. It took me a while and a lot of practice to ‘understand’ his face. It lends itself well both to caricature as well as naturalistic portrayals.
The process of drawing him and some of the other Sherlock actors over and over again made me appreciate the uniqueness of human features all the more, and caused me to rely more heavily on photographic or real life references for my art. In fact, some Sherlock life-drawing took place during the filming of “The Abominable Bride” in London in early 2015, where I drew a good number of life sketches of the various actresses and actors and their costumes.
I think the compulsion to create transformative works for this particular show largely stems from the fact that for me, it combines many of my personal interests and passions, my aesthetic and artistic preferences in a way few other works of fiction do. In creating such a richly textured, aesthetically pleasing, technically innovative and internally consistent universe, Sherlock, like many good books, films and other media products, provides a wealth of opportunities for escapism and sub-creation. Even though I still find it difficult to pin down and analyze exactly what, for me, makes Sherlock so special that it has led to an almost unparalleled burst of creativity and new directions in my artistic endeavors, in this article I hope to at least have touched upon those points most relevant to explain my artistic style and sources of inspiration. Hopefully, the art illustrating this article conveys my intention more articulately than my words.
Speaking of artwork, there is more to come. At the moment I am working on a Sherlock-inspired graphic novel. In the book, the world’s only consulting detective will be dashing about his beloved London on a treasure-hunt that is going to lead him to some of the city’s hidden jewels. It is going to be a fully illustrated, rather unusual tourist guide for those who appreciate the weird, quirky and odd, the old and new, historic and contemporary – for those who, like Sherlock, love London, who enjoy a closer look at things that seem boring or unworthy of attention at first glance, and who moreover like the odd riddle.