Fuck me, people like drawing Benedict Cumberbatch. And they – both the artists and their artwork – are extraordinary. Such is the popularity of "The Internet's Boyfriend" that, within a few seconds of searching, you discover there are many, many, many drawings of him online, composed by some of his most ardent fans.
Neither the man nor his fame needs much by way of introduction. Cumberbatch, along with Eddie Redmayne, is being spoken of as a likely recipient of Best Actor at the upcoming Oscars for his role as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. But who, exactly, are the CumberArtists?
They are almost exclusively self-taught. Generally they are young. Most of them are female. Some of the people I speak to are hardcore fans and some are artists who tackle other subjects but have zoned in on Cumberbatch since noticing that their drawings of him tend to be more popular on the web.
For a CumberArtist, Nicóla Pace is atypical in age at 50. She lives in Nebraska and works for an independent record store. When I speak to her, she is not alone in upbraiding me about any assumptions I or the media might have harboured about the CumberCollective – namely that they are obsessive and lead fantasy lives in which they imagine themselves married to the man.
It's true. We dehumanise "fandom". There are fantastically talented and interesting people operating fan Twitter accounts and drawing fan pictures –portraying them as cyber zombies baying for Cumberblood is to ignore the elements of the narrative that are so intriguing. And to suggest that all of them are fixated with Cumberbatch only because they dream of having sex with him is, if my interviewees are to be believed, far from the truth.
An artist from San Francisco, who goes by the Tumblr name sleepingexplorer, says that "so-called 'fangirls' have really been taking it on the chin in the media lately". A piece by Jada Yuan for New York Magazine, she says, made much of the "rabid female fans" narrative, and, "while that might make for a little click-bait, it's disgusting, sexist, un-feminist, and (largely) inaccurate."
"Amazing fan communities are formed around men that wear numbered shirts and chase oddly-shaped balls through the mud. It shouldn't be thought of as so weird that they might form around an actor or a television show." Others feel similarly. "I do not draw fanfic porn or fantasy art, I draw portraits," says Nicóla.
The artwork of the CumberCollective can be sublime, some of it almost photographically accurate. I did a double take when I first saw one of Nicóla's pieces because I thought it was a photograph. The piece is her largest portrait, 13 by 26 inches, and took her over a month to complete. "Because of the size," she says, "I decided to use multiple mediums to achieve the finished look. I used Prismacolour Premier colour pencils, graphite pencils and acrylic paint."
Like others, Nicóla considers the eyes to be crucial: "If you don't get the eyes correct, it will never look right and the drawing will suffer. I knew the clothing would take the longest to do. I decided to use black acrylic paint to create the shadows and creases in the folds, then I went over it with pencil for colour and detail."
At 24, Rachel Gray is typical in years for a Cumberbatch portraitist, but not typical in training: the high quality of her work is due, in part, to the fact that she has a BA in Illustration. Her portrait of Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in The Empty Hearse, in which he has drawn a tiny moustache onto his face to impersonate a waiter, captures the actor's smile with a remarkable likeness. Gray has taken commissions from people who wanted to be painted into pictures with Cumberbatch – they asked to be holding his hand, for example – but she has never painted herself into her works of art. "I don't count myself as a besotted fan," she says. "I just have tons of respect for what he does."
For some, the art is a form of relaxation, while for others it's part of an ambition to become professional. "It allows me to meet wonderful people," says Cécile Pellerin, who lives in north-west France. Performance student Olivia Booth, 18, comments: "I do what I do because both art and Benedict give me great joy as an artistic individual, combining both my love for acting and art into one." sleepingexplorer, a professional artist, claims that her "fandom-related works" are principally for practice – as a "vacation", or for the enjoyment that other fans will derive from them.
22-year-old Theatre Studies student, Georgina Lewis, lives in London and has drawn between 40 and 55 portraits of Cumberbatch and says she has been a fan for about 18 months. Like a few others, it was Sherlock that brought Cumberbatch to her attention but was the "real" Benedict that crystallised her fascination. "I saw him in interviews and realised how much of a gentleman he was; very caring to others around him, fond of his fans and funny, too."
Is this why women from all corners of the globe spend literally weeks sketching his face?
"Away from a script, that's when you see Benedict," says Clare Newman, 33, from the Isle of Wight. "Benedict as a person is a passionate, informed, caring person with a really silly side that we see all too often. He's not conventional, not fake, and very much a person you could imagine having a good banter and a pint with down the pub."
Some have been lucky enough to meet him, and several have had their pieces signed by the man himself. Meike Zane, whose work is truly extraordinary, has a story that would be the envy of many within the CumberCollective.
"I've met Benedict twice now and he's a really nice guy," says the 24-year-old from Holland. "He recognised me before I could introduce myself, because he had been shown my drawings before. He actually asked – about an ink drawing I had done of Tom Hiddleston as Loki – if Tom had seen it. Benedict then asked if he could take it with him to give to Tom. I agreed, and when I saw Benedict again he confirmed he gave the piece to Tom three days after we had met."
Cécile Pellerin is only 17 and has been drawing – every day if she can – since the age of nine. When asked about Cumberbatch's appeal, Cécile focuses on his chameleon-like ability to disappear into his roles. Surprisingly few say outright that he is attractive, preferring to dwell on other aspects of his character.
"He's highly intellectual, talented and respectful, and I feel like it's becoming rarer for people to become famous or well known for that these days," says Rachel Gray. "What I do isn't borne from a desire to be close to him, but he is an interesting subject, aesthetically." Clare Newman says "there's something incredibly other-worldly about his look, his eyes in particular. Anyone who has been lucky enough to meet him (I've struck gold and met him twice) will know he looks right at you with those aqua galaxies and that's it, you're held."
Newman, the sports editor of her local newspaper, and whose Twitter presence is almost exclusively Cumbercentric, tells me that the CumberCollective is an important presence in her life. "I have made friends around the world – more than I could ever have imagined," she says. "Hamlet next year [Cumberbatch will be playing the Danish prince at the Barbican in August 2015] will be the biggest meeting of friends ever."
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