Born and raised in Hilversum (and, for the record, still residing in the southern part of that city), Rik Oostenbroek finds it tricky to describe himself, being a man of many talents. His bread and butter is digital creation, and the elements he tends to look for are colour, composition and a certain level of abstraction. His work ranges from print to animation, from 2D to 3D and from portraiture to typography. ‘Do I consider myself an artist or a designer? As far as I’m concerned, I’m simply Rik.’
Having worked all over the world – Los Angeles being his favourite destination – Rik has been based in Hilversum’s Stookplaats enterprise centre for the past few years. It’s a relaxed and creative space where he rents an office from which he sends his work to clients worldwide. When we go to meet Rik for our interview, he is waiting outside a warehouse. ‘This is a really wonderful space, and the fact that the people who work here are pretty great too makes it very special.’
The industrial space is indeed impressive, combining a bare-bones design with a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Rik leads us into a large office on the top floor of the building, where we find a table dotted with dried paint splatters and a collection of brightly coloured wooden chairs. It’s impossible to miss the huge digital screen in a corner of the room. ‘We’ve been known to get leaks here during heavy downpours, but the fact that you don’t notice it is what makes this such a great space.’
From Windows Paint to Photoshop
‘Yes, that’s how it all started. I’m not sure why, but I simply started “painting” when I would come home in the afternoons, during my lunch breaks at school. I would just mess around on the computer and make random things, just to entertain myself. This was during the Napster era, when people used to rip their own CDs. I started making my own album covers using Paint, which I called Rikky’s Top Hits. I would print them out on my parents’ printer and slip them into the jewel boxes. I wasn’t particularly interested in creating anything at that time and was never even really aware that I enjoyed it.’
It was only later, when a good friend showed him designs online produced by an Austrian designer, that Rik became truly inspired. It prompted him to start experimenting, initially by creating things in Photoshop. It wasn’t until his third year of secondary school, when Rik discovered Photoshop, that things began to really take off.
‘I was blown away by that Austrian designer’s work: how it was produced, and the colours he used. So after hanging out with my friends for a while and playing a few rounds of Halo or FIFA, I would get behind my computer and play around with Photoshop until deep in the night. I always only produced original work rather than messing around with pictures or changing the colours.’
Rik: ‘I’m a big fan of surrealist stuff. I mean, I’m impressed when someone can make a drawing that looks just like a photograph, but I also tend to think: why not just take a picture instead? But I’ve always been drawn to surrealism. You can create something from scratch by playing around with colour and composition. I love shapes and colours and how you can use the two to create something new.’
Rik was content simply doing his own thing, until one day he started publishing his work on his own website: Secret Showcase, a name he came up with one night when he was messing around with Photoshop. When he discovered at one point that he had racked up 120,000 page views, he knew there was an audience out there for his work, mostly online.
‘This was kind of before social media became a “thing,” although there were a few blogs devoted to the type of work I was doing. One of those sites was called Deviant Art. I would post my work there and meet like-minded people who were also into that style. I was very happy to discover an online community where I could really let my creativity run wild. Then, one day, I received a call from Volkswagen. They asked me to do a job for them and said they’d pay me 1,200 euros. That’s a lot of money for an 18-year-old! That’s when things began to really take off and I started getting more work.’
Although Rik did not really set goals for himself, his reputation grew and he began to attract business from larger companies and brands. He also developed a bit of a fan base online: people who liked his work and encouraged him to keep doing his thing.
‘For whatever reason, people started noticing my work. But it was never intentional – it simply happened,’ Rik says. He lived in Montreal for a spell and would sometimes spend a month in New Jersey, New York City, or Los Angeles. However, in the end he would always return to his hometown of Hilversum.
Designer or artist?
‘I’m not really sure I can answer that question. I simply make things. You might describe me as a creator of images, but one who has his own distinct style. Some agencies didn’t really know what to make of me, as I didn’t fit into a neat box. They would simply hire me and allow me to do my thing. The projects I worked on ranged from the National Postcode Lottery to scenic landscapes for Mazda ads. But after a while I felt that I’d been there, done that. Creatively, it was somewhat restrictive, as you’re always working with some product or other. Someone will hand you a Hero Shot, and you’re supposed to create your design around that. The fact that everything always revolves around the product does get tired after a while. So there’s always going to be a bit of creative sacrifice in that sense. But those commercial jobs also give me freedom: financial independence to do what I want in the end!’
What makes him proud?
‘I started doing this work as a hobby, and becoming a professional designer is quite a different thing altogether.
I love my work, but the fact that I’m almost obsessively involved in it does make it hard sometimes. I put a lot of myself into my work, and I get very frustrated whenever I’m having an “off” day. For me, that’s the downside of working on my own. But I’ve been working on improving that, and things have been going a lot better since I started renting a space here.’
Ever since that first assignment from Volkswagen, the work has been pouring in. He has been able to work his magic for some major global brands, something that makes him quite proud. He shies away from describing any project as his ‘best’ or ‘finest’ work, as he feels there’s always someone out there who outshines him.
‘I’m not especially proud of my work or anything, and I don’t really talk about it in those terms. When I look at some of my earlier work, I sometimes think I could have done a better job. But sometimes it’s the other way around, where I created something I wasn’t really happy with initially, only to find a year later that it was actually pretty slick.’
‘One thing I am proud of is my global ambassadorship for HP. I’m one of the six people featured in the advertising campaign for their new line of creative equipment, including monitors, printers and desktop computers. My work and I both appear in the campaign. It’s a lot of fun to be part of such a major project. The fact that they picked me out of millions of designers and other creatives is just such a thrill. It means I’m doing something right and that my work stands out. People take me seriously for something I started on a lark in my bedroom. Makes for a pretty good story so far, wouldn’t you agree?’
‘At some point, I would like to explore what it’s like to be an artist; it’s something I’m very curious about. I’d like to try my hand at sculpture, start making physical objects. I can convert the things I make now into physical objects through the use of colours and light and really create an experience. But I really have no idea where to start – I need to find experienced people who will show me the ropes. I’m really curious to find out what that would be like, and also what it’s like to have a regular 9-to-5 job, where you go home at the end of the day and you’re done. My days are not really structured in that sense; I’m always working. I make and create things all the time – that doesn’t stop when I go home in the evening.’
Lessons from the maker
‘I find that a bit tricky, as I don’t want to come across as smug. You know, what really matters in the end is having enough freedom and enough time to do my own thing, which means playing around and putting ideas into practice. You need to keep searching for new things. That might be the most important thing of all.’
Hilversum and beyond?
‘The first time I came here, to the Stookplaats, I didn’t expect I’d come to feel so at home – it didn’t really seem like my kind of place at first. I used to work from home, from my kitchen table, but sometimes I felt I needed to step away from it all. Also, I couldn’t possibly do everything. I’ve managed to find people here I can collaborate with: people who inspire me and whom I can just sit around with and chat with from time to time. It’s helped me to become a little less obsessive about my work, and more balanced. I’m very content right now, here in my small workspace. I sometimes fantasise about living in a fancy penthouse in LA, but how realistic is that? And you know, Hilversum is really not such a bad place to live. Amsterdam and Utrecht are right around the corner, although they’re both a bit too touristy for my taste. Here, I’m surrounded by people with whom I can sit down and have a beer, and who’ll distract me from my work from time to time. I also still see some of my friends from secondary school. That’s something I wouldn’t trade for anything.’