Reddit’s Quentin Blake

Shitty Watercolour’s Reddit sketches have grown the York student a fanbase that includes Barack Obama

Charming, extraordinarily talented and utterly in love with Quentin Blake, Hector Janse van Rensburg is an artist of the internet generation. After setting up a Reddit account, Hector began painting interesting stories that had been posted on the site. Under the self-deprecating username Shitty Watercolour, his ink and watercolour illustrations have gone on to be featured online on The Huffington Post, CNN and MTV.

Since then, however, his paintings have contradicted the very brand he created. Maturing as an illustrator both in terms of his technique and his subjects, his pictures have evolved over what he guesses must be thousands of paintings. Hector now paints anything from internet memes, scenes from films and university Yik Yaks. “And sloths… loads of sloths.”

Shitty Watercolour started from the humblest beginnings. Hector recalls: “The only reason I actually had a paint set was because it was one of those stocking filler, really cheap, ridiculous kid’s painting sets, and I just thought, ‘What the hell, I’ll make a Reddit account. If it goes terribly then it’s anonymous so it’s fine.’ And I just did so many of them. I remember, at first, I would be painting almost every hour that I was awake. It was ridiculous.”

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Hector explains that the reason for the name “Shitty Watercolour” was that, “back then, they were bad. Like really, really bad”.

He credits the simple line drawings of Quentin Blake as a huge influence. Hector muses: “I think [Blake’s] drawings are deceptive because they look very quick and easy and then you have a go – you realise there’s just something missing.”

Hector describes Blake’s drawings as “really simple and fun and quick, which is basically everything that I wanted to do.” But as his audience has grown, Hector has developed a style of his own. He explains: “In the beginning, they looked a lot like Quentin Blake ones, but I don’t think they do now.”

Hector now paints to commission, but admits that working with others isn’t always easy. “Without naming any examples,” he says, laughing nervously, “when you do work for a company and they give you a brief … that’s pretty much the only time that you don’t dictate what things you paint yourself. [When you’re] told to paint something and then in your head you’re thinking, ‘This is awful. This isn’t funny at all.’  You just try your best and do it. I think that’s probably the biggest conflict.”

Hector is often torn between appealing to his original audience and further developing his style. He says, “The other day, I posted one of my older paintings. It was two years old. And I posted it being like, ‘Ha, this is really bad. Look, how much better they’ve got.’ And a bunch of people were like, ‘I kind of like that one.’ Which was difficult to see.

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“It’s very strange because a lot of that stuff happened when the paintings were really bad. Should I try to get better? Is it a bad thing to get better? Because a lot of people enjoy the ‘bad’ paintings in themselves, but then lots of other people enjoy seeing me get better and that’s really confusing to deal with.”

A firm believer in what he calls the “ten thousand hours rule” of putting in enough work until you see some improvement, Hector’s work has led to some wonderful opportunities. He recalls the “coolest thing” that has happened to him: “Obama did a question and answer session on Reddit and I saw it like twenty minutes after he posted it. By that time, it probably had like ten thousand comments already and [I thought] my reply would just go into this sea of mess.

“So I wasn’t very optimistic about it, but I very, very quickly put together some really rushed painting of Obama and an American flag behind him that just said ‘Welcome to Reddit’ and posted it. The post did really well and then the next morning I remember waking up and [going to] CNN.com and [my painting] was just there in the middle, massive. Then he put it on his blog and that was just… Obama has my painting on his blog.”

People initially thought Hector actually was Quentin Blake. He notes, “It used to be the case that if you Googled Quentin Blake, like the second Google result was ‘Quentin Blake, Shitty Watercolour’. Someone posted it on Reddit, and they got a little screenshot of it and it got a bunch of attention, and then the next day, it was gone. So they obviously saw it and got rid of it. Which was sad.”

Just how big of a fan is he? “I am probably his biggest fan,” he says confidently. “I have, I think, five Quentin Blake mugs? Lots of Quentin Blake mugs. I love Quentin Blake mugs.” While proceeding with a list of the signed posters he owns, he remarks, “This is like the weirdest showing off ever.”

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In spite of his success, Hector still goes to lectures as a student “like everyone else”. That is, of course, until he gets spotted. “It usually goes, ‘Hey, I like your paintings,’ and like, ‘Thank you,’ and then we realise that we don’t have anything else to say. But no, it is nice. It is very nice. Weird things happen when people recognise you, especially on nights out.”

The greatest testament to Hector’s humility is his gratitude to the many fans of his paintings. “I often wonder if I’d enjoy my own paintings if it was someone else doing it,” he contemplates. He is also immensely grateful for his original platform, Reddit. “And Quentin Blake, obviously.” 

(All images credited to  Hector Janse van Rensburg)