Meet Hector Janse van Rensburg.
He’s one of the most famous artists of our digital age. And he lives in York.
But that’s not his artist name
He goes by the name Shitty_watercolour. And this early painting shows why.
But in the three years since he painted this he has completed thousands of watercolours and now they are really rather good.
Hector posts most of them on Reddit, the “front page of the internet” and has built up a huge following.
A typical post by Hector on Reddit notches between 50K and 100K views. When movie stars, pop idols and presidents appear on Reddit, he illustrates them in watercolour and ink, often to their delight.
Like this one for Benedict Cumberbatch
Stars like Benedict appear on Reddit for the “AMA” (Ask Me Anything) strand. And sometimes they see Hector’s illustrations and comment on them…
Other star portraits include David Attenborough…
Which went down well with his team:
…And Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston
For which he earned one of five “blue ice” rewards.
But there’s no doubt of Hector’s biggest moment
When President Barack Obama appeared on Reddit, Hector did this portrait. It wasn’t one of the artist’s favourites, he told YorkMix:
So I just knew I had to do something really quickly otherwise it’s just going to get buried and no one’s going to see it. So I did it and thankfully it got upvoted to somewhere near the top.
Then things spiralled
“I remember the next morning I woke up and someone tweeted at me,” Hector said. “It was CNN I think.
“I went on CNN.com and right in the middle, big, was my painting which was awful. It was great, but the painting was awful.”
But not everyone shared that view. The president liked it enough to ask his people to get the original.
He was told the painting would be hung at President Obama’s campaign HQ. “Quite cool, yeah.”
So how did it begin?
When he was studying for his A levels at his Cambridge home, Hector dug out a watercolour set his family had given him for Christmas. As an active Reddit user he decided to illustrate some of the stories posted on there.
Now he is studying at York University
Hector is reading philosophy, politics and economics. But when he came here his Reddit output slowed.
I was more clever about where I posted and doing things that would be seen more.
And the paintings got more adventurous
Hector has reinterpreted classic paintings. Like this homage to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.
Not to mention his sloth period
Vincent Van Sloth. Hector explained why on his own AMA strand:
Originally only a few knew his secret identity
Hector kept his real name under wraps for a long time. But some of his mates in York knew his secret identity.
I remember in the first week I was doing my charity thing where I painted hundreds of 5x5cm portraits. For the first two weeks or so I was really busy just getting all of these done, for hours every day.
He now freelances for the BBC and others
Hector has been commissioned to create artwork for, among others, the BBC, Buzzfeed, CNN and Lionsgate films.
But it is Yik Yak that he finds most rewarding
Yik Yak is a social media smartphone app which allows people anonymously to create and view “Yaks” within a ten-mile radius. Now Hector illustrates his favourite York University “yaks” with watercolours.
The one above has the caption:
My last f**k had gone. I had nothing left.
He feels more at home with the Yik Yak community
The numbers who see his posts on Reddit go into six figures: “I can’t possibly visualise that,” Hector says.
If I do a painting and think that wasn’t as good as yesterday’s, then it’s quite easy to visualise everyone looking at it and thinking, ‘meh’.
Reddit is mainly America and very far away people who I’ll probably never meet or speak to, but on this page everyone is here, walking around, they feel very close to me.
He often gets spotted out and about
“I tend to get a message on Reddit or Twitter, saying ‘I saw you in so-and-so’,” says Hector.
“And there was one occasion in the Willow at about 3am in the toilets – that’s one of the few times that people have actually come up to me and said hi.
“But I can’t really remember what happened…”
His style has certainly matured
“If you paint however many thousands of paintings I’ve painted, it’s literally impossible not to develop some kind of style,” Hector says.
He was inspired by Quentin Blake, and is often compared to the illustrator. “Even if people do say they look like Quentin Blake pictures, they really don’t. He’s much looser.”
It would be nice to get away from that but I have a fear if I try to do that I’ll have to start from the beginning again, and I don’t know if I want to do that.
So what does the future bring?
Hector likes York a lot. “My only complaint is the art shop doesn’t have the type of paper that I like.
“Other than that it’s good, especially the Yik Yak paintings. That’s a huge source of inspiration, which all comes from York.”
But he might not stay here after graduation. Whether Hector becomes a full-time illustrator, only time will tell. But he would like to do some travelling.
I did paintings for Twitter and I did a bunch for Facebook, and obviously Reddit, and they’ve all invited me to their offices. I just haven’t found an opportunity to go and visit them I think it would be really cool to go.
But an exhibition has been ruled out…
With the new York Art Gallery opening in summer, we suggested that Hector could hold an exhibition of his work there.
Maybe one day. Give it another ten years.