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How ‘Shitty_Watercolour’ Became So Popular

The Curious Case of Shitty_Watercolour

From boredom and incompetence to Internet celebrity.

When he was rejected by his first-choice university, a depressed and bored 19-year-old Hector Janse van Rensburg found an old watercolour paint set. Despite his incompetence, he started publishing watercolor paintings on the internet under the aptly-named pseudonym ‘Shitty_Watercolour’.

Over the course of a single year, he found himself catapulted to Reddit stardom and received coverage from CNN and Huffington Post, and a response from Barack Obama’s team. He’s now a painter for the BBC.

How did he do it?

Rensburg’s accomplishment is incredibly remarkable, considering how millions of people struggle to compete for attention all the time. We carefully analyzed his story and identified 3 primary building blocks of his success:

  1. A great premise
  2. Content created specifically for an eager, pre-existing audience
  3. A compelling narrative that people get invested in following

Let’s go through them in greater detail.

1. The refreshingly candid premise of being ‘shitty’ was…

  • Unexpected. Nobody really expects to see a painting out of nowhere, especially on a site that’s dominated by discussions and text posts. There are some GIFs and image posts (which do get rewarded if well-chosen), but custom paintings were something else altogether. (See: OMG! 18 Examples Of Unexpectedness in marketing.)
  • Refreshingly candid. How often do you see content that admits that it’s bad? It gets you curious. How bad is bad, really? You need to find out!
  • Fun. Rensburg didn’t start Shitty_Watercolour with any grand ambitions, he did it to have fun. Marketers and salespeople often fall into the trap of doing what they think ‘ought’ to be done, rather than what they actually enjoy. Of course, not everything you enjoy will translate well to the audience. (Veet seems to have thought that their ad was fun, and their audience disagreed.) So you do need a good understanding of your audience and the context.
  • Original. SW very quickly developed his own brand. There are some imitators and similar novelty accounts, but SW was quite a pioneer. Apart from his signature style, SW has also made a habit of painting sloths. (Yes, really.) He would do sloth impressions of famous people, and anyone who requested to have their profile picture ‘sloth-ified’. That’s fantastic branding.
The Twitter Executive Team sloth-ified
The Twitter Executive Team sloth-ified

Learning point: Figure out what is truly, truly unique about yourself, and leverage that.

2. Great choices in subject matter = a ready, eager audience

  • Shitty_Watercolour has a remarkably high success rate. Some artists are talented, yet never create anything particularly noteworthy. Shitty_Watercolour, in contrast, has consistently churned out hit after hit, getting thousands of upvotes for many of his artworks.
  • Hitch a ride! He did this by hijacking existing audiences. He looked for posts that were popular, and then made paintings of those posts. These paintings added value to those already-valuable posts, which guaranteed him lots of eyeballs and positive responses.

Here’s one that he did for Barack Obama’s AMA, which was later featured on the official Obama Tumblr account:

Welcome to Reddit, My Barack Obama by  Shitty_Watercolour
Welcome to Reddit, Mr. President by Shitty_Watercolour

Learning point: Skate to where the puck is going to be, and you’ll be disproportionately rewarded for it.

3. An engaging narrative for people to follow (and participate in)

“I would have stopped a long time ago if the paintings that I did weren’t well received on Reddit,”  Rensburg said.

  • From zero to hero. Shitty_Watercolour started out knowing that his paintings were bad. He didn’t initially have any particular scheme to improve them. But people appreciated his work, which kept him going. Comments like “Where’s u/Shitty_Watercolour when you need him?” became a regular fixture. He became a living, breathing part of the Reddit ecosystem.
  • Diversification. And then Shitty_Watercolour went beyond that, setting up a Tumblr and Twitter of his own. People could now subscribe to Shitty_Watercolour’s work woutside of Reddit as he transitioned away from his dependence on the Reddit platform. He developed from chasing ‘cheap laughs’ (in quotes because cheap laughs are hard work!) to having a respectable body of work with his own signature style.

Learning point: Be consistent, and play the long game. Pursue growth.

Like a Boss
Like a Boss

In conclusion:

While Shitty_Watercolour’s whirlwind success might be atypical, there’s much that we can learn from it.

  • A good premise (e.g. being unorthodox) is arguably the most important. Finding good subject matter to talk about is relatively easy if you pay attention, but having a good premise requires experimentation and a willingness to fail.
  • Solicit feedback. Shitty_Watercolour pointed out that he wouldn’t have cared to improve his skill if Redditors weren’t so receptive. This is a phenomenally important point. He fed off the energy of the crowd. And you will need to do that too, if you want to build something for people that’s well-received.

Alright, I’ll leave you with what I think is his best work so far: The Wonder of Space

The Wonder of Space - beautiful!

Images courtesy of Shitty_Watercolour

Relevant readings:

Samuel Hum

Samuel Hum

As a finalist in Esquire's Best Dressed Real Man contest, Samuel is ReferralCandy's fashion eCommerce expert and resident sartorialist. He is obsessed with human behavior, social psychology, and handstands. He is also the lead calisthenics trainer at Weightless.

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