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Meet Hector Janse van Rensburg.

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

shitty_watercolour-mug

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

shitty_watercolour-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…

David Attenborough

David Attenborough

Which went down well with his team:

Thanks! We will frame your picture and give it to Sir David! That’s amazing! Thank you!

…And Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston

A Breaking Bad-style watercolour for Bryan Cranston

A Breaking Bad-style watercolour for Bryan Cranston

For which he earned one of five “blue ice” rewards.

But there’s no doubt of Hector’s biggest moment

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

When President Barack Obama appeared on Reddit, Hector did this portrait. It wasn’t one of the artist’s favourites, he told YorkMix:

That’s the most panicked, rushed thing I have ever put together. Like many other people I saw it and it was about 20 minutes old, I didn’t know it was coming, and there were literally thousands of comments every second.

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

On CNN

“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.

I actually sent a different one to them – I repainted it and sent them the new one. Because it was all so quick that the one I did was on the back of a different painting on the corner of a massive big sheet, and it was only about the size of my hand.

He was told the painting would be hung at President Obama’s campaign HQ. “Quite cool, yeah.”

So how did it begin?

shitty_watercolour-biirdman

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.

I went about it in the most inefficient way possible. I would sit on the new queue, where all the new posts come in, and just paint almost everything. Then I started to get a bit more selective.

Now he is studying at York University

Proud to be a York University student

Hector is reading philosophy, politics and economics. But when he came here his Reddit output slowed.

Before I came to university I was posting maybe a dozen times a day. When I did come to university I was posting maybe once a week. So it really did drop dramatically.

I was more clever about where I posted and doing things that would be seen more.

And the paintings got more adventurous

Botticelli's The Birth of Venus reinterpreted

Hector has reinterpreted classic paintings. Like this homage to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

Not to mention his sloth period

Vincent Van Sloth

Vincent Van Sloth. Hector explained why on his own AMA strand:

Sloths faces have such a personality to them that is lovely to try to capture in painting. I probably did take it a little far (on my wall above me I have superman sloth, ellie goulding sloth, a policeman sloth and a couple of others… yeah it’s gone a bit too far).

Originally only a few knew his secret identity

Some of the charity portraits by Hector

Some of the charity portraits by Hector

Hector kept his real name under wraps for a long time. But some of his mates in York knew his secret identity.

They think it’s cool. I always do paintings for their birthdays and whatnot. I also come downstairs and ask for advice – ‘look at this painting, do you like it, should this be red?’

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

One of the Buzzfeed illustrations for Valentine's everywhere

One of the Buzzfeed illustrations for Valentine’s everywhere

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

One of the Yik Yak illustrations

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:

“Go on” I whispered as I unfold my hands towards the open sky. A single f**k escaped my grasp, soaring gracefully into the open air. “You’re free now”.

My last f**k had gone. I had nothing left.

He feels more at home with the Yik Yak community

A painting to illustrate the message: "Still secretly hoping that Hagrid will come to my house and take me to Hogwarts before I have to sit this exam."

A painting to illustrate the message: “Still secretly hoping that Hagrid will come to my house and take me to Hogwarts before I have to sit this exam.”

The numbers who see his posts on Reddit go into six figures: “I can’t possibly visualise that,” Hector says.

On the Yik Yak page I feel more connected to these people – they go to my university.

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

The caption to this picture reads": "Washing that willow stamp off like Lady Macbeth"

The caption to this picture reads”: “Washing that Willow stamp off like Lady Macbeth”

“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

Titanic, sloth-style

Titanic, sloth-style

“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.”

He adds:

Sometimes I feel that it’s quite limiting, the style that I have. It’s very cartoony. It looks like a children’s book illustration no matter what I do.

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?

"Gonna go to the exam dressed up as Jon Snow because I know nothing"

“Gonna go to the exam dressed up as Jon Snow because I know nothing”

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’d like to go to America, maybe not to live by just to visit. Maybe San Francisco, where all the tech companies are.

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…

Hector illustrates the idea that jobless Jeremy Clarkson could join One Direction

Hector illustrates the idea that jobless Jeremy Clarkson could join One Direction

With the new York Art Gallery opening in summer, we suggested that Hector could hold an exhibition of his work there.

That terrifies me. People standing and looking at the paintings – I can’t think of anything worse.

Maybe one day. Give it another ten years.

Hector’s Yik Yak page on Facebook


Chris Titley

Chris Titley

Editor at YorkMix
Chris has more than 20 years' experience in journalism and is the co-founder and editor of YorkMix. Drop him a line at chris@yorkmix.com