A self-taught digital artist, Rik Oostenbroek has made art for the likes of Nike, Apple, and Adobe over a two-decade career. He speaks to Nina Knaack about dropping out of his economics degree, seeing respect given to digital artists, and expressing your(self).
When Rik was 14 years old, he had a computer that couldn’t do much. Growing up in a small town near Amsterdam in the 1990s, you had to make a call to get on the internet, and his bedroom had no phone connection. “Offline gaming was all I did, until a friend of mine showed me some work on DeviantArt. I never really had a connection with art per se; my mom and dad were both elementary school teachers and we didn’t go to museums much. My grandpa was an art collector, but I never consciously thought about art. However, Deviant Art triggered me and from that moment onwards I started creating.”
“Instead of doing homework or some kind of team sport, I was making digital art and loving it. I could express myself with my Photoshop creations and would put those online. Other people responded to that and I really liked connecting with them. Sometimes it’s hard to find your own crowd, especially in a small town, but the internet makes it so much easier.”
“This all changed when Facebook, and especially Instagram, came around.”
— Rik Oostenbroek
But Rik wanted to make digital art more than a hobby. He dropped out of his economics degree on the very first day: Photoshop was how he spent his time and was the only thing he wanted to do. He quickly became better and was often asked to design small pieces for local clubs and small companies. Gradual growth turned into a huge leap when he was asked to create a design for a Volkswagen campaign. He was only 17 years old at the time. “This was a bizarre moment, landing a job that big while my friends where living their student lives.”
But that was just the beginning of a period of non-stop work. Clients included Nike, Apple, Mercedes-Benz, Adidas, Adobe, Paramount, and many more. “Of course it was great that I could work for such big brands and make quite some money with it, but after a while it didn’t spark me much joy anymore. I didn’t feel the freedom to really create as an artist.
“For clients, advertisement was in mind; you had to do certain tricks to make something attractive. I couldn’t include much of my own illustrations, whereas I really wanted to show and incorporate cool, new ideas that I had. This all changed when Facebook, and especially Instagram, came around.”
With new platforms that opened up the possibility of gaining a worldwide audience, Rik decided to choose for himself. “With clients, everything was decided beforehand. I just executed the ideas of others. I didn't learn much, and that felt like such a shame because there were a lot of ideas that I didn’t work on creatively.”
Instead, Rik started to teach himself how to work with different programs to get the feeling of creative freedom back. He took on Illustrator, 3D, and animation, whilst also exploring the concepts behind typology. “Just for the sake of making, creating, sharing and learning. On repeat.” He shared his creations on Instagram and found increasing popularity on the platform. “That’s where I could really post my own work, not the things I did on commission.”
“With clients, everything was decided beforehand. I just had to execute the ideas of others.”
— Rik Oostenbroek
Rik’s style is hard to describe. He works very intuitively and is inspired by all the things he sees around him. “I soak up everything I encounter and specifically focus on colour combinations and textures. Then I try to recreate those in the digital world, altering compositions until I think it looks really nice and interesting together; the shapes, colours, surfaces, and patterns.”
“Interestingly enough,” he adds, "I then got asked by clients to make personal things for their brands. Fully within my own style. That was a big shift because I could really create what I wanted.” But even though being able to use his own style and creativity within his commissions, it would still be the client who had the final say on the piece. “I had a lot of jobs coming at me and it sometimes felt very hard to say no: as if you can’t miss the opportunities that are being given to you, because ‘now I’m still relevant’. I decided to take a sabbatical for a year, but then the Beeple sale happened.”
Ultimately, Rik didn’t take that year off and instead threw himself into web3 in February 2021. “Damn it, I thought. I’ve been making digital art for sixteen years now so I can’t not do anything with NFTs. It felt like a big breakthrough that digital art was finally accepted as ‘real art’, instead of needing to work with oil on canvas to be taken seriously.”
“The fact that there was now an interest in digital art, also from art historians and art critics, was something I felt I had to take advantage of. That attention had never been there and because of that you sometimes didn’t believe in yourself as a digital artist. It was as if your work matters less and you’re just a tool for brands to market a product. But now it could actually be worth something, on its own.”
This transition was a combination of strange but great sensations for Rik. “It wasn’t just about likes and comments anymore. It was such a big change, for me and also for many others, to sell your digital art like that. I also felt like I found a new community again, a little bit like I had back in the day on DeviantArt, but now on a bigger scale; I love to be inspired by others online and to share and discuss with them. There’s so much talent on so many levels, and web3 is the place where it can all come together.”
“It was as if your work matters less and you’re just a tool for brands to market a product. But now it could actually be worth something, on its own.”
— Rik Oostenbroek
Eighteen months after he first started, Rik has had tremendous success in NFTs. He recalls the first time he made a sale. “For me it was a very bizarre feeling as well. I even felt a bit guilty about it, as if it wasn’t justified.” His first collector found him, as is now usual, through a retweet. “He is now a very good friend and trusted advisor. He also bought the second and third work that I minted.” It felt quite absurd for Rik that he had already sold pieces for high prices. With success, in his mind, came responsibility. “This was super cool of course, but also very intimidating. I felt pressure when thinking about what I was going to mint next.”
“It almost started to feel like ‘work’ again, as if you had to put something successful out there.” Because of that, Rik waited a long time before minting new work. His next collection came four months later, with Arcus, inspired by the “dense, horizontal, roll-shaped clouds sometimes occurring at the lower front portion of a cumulonimbus cloud.”
“I even felt a bit guilty about [making a sale].”
— Rik Oostenbroek
Altogether, Arcus took Rik five years to create, and captures his evolution throughout the different stages of his creative career; pursuing “acceptance in the way I am.” Instead of fighting his weaknesses, through Arcus, he found a way to put it into his work. More than any of his other artworks, it is Arcus that he feels summarises the ‘Rik Oostenbroek style’.
“It still occurred to me though that I constantly thought about what I had to do next and I noticed I wanted to be meaningful in the space somehow.” Inspired by the success of Arcus and his latest work, Self, Rik extended an invitation to his community: "A creative exploration and open invitation to collaborate on my last mint; Self. Feel free to do it your own way, be creative, surprise me.”
With 4 eth in rewards split between the top three artists, the competition sparked such an incredible wave of creativity that Rik had to double his judging panel from three to six. “I loved the fact that I could now give artists that have never sold over 1 or 2 eth a chance to be in the spotlight.” Rik plans to collect as many of the iterations as he can, many of which exhibited at a pop-up gallery hosted by Op.ΞnSpace (OpenSpace) earlier this October.
“It’s so amazing to see how it came to life and what special creations were made. I finally felt like I made a difference, because of sharing purely for the love of art. Then creativity just happens, with so many people taking it to the next level. Talent flows and keeps on flowing if you give an opportunity for it. I hope that we can achieve that digital art will be much celebrated, now and especially in the future. It is definitely possible, and we’re here to show it.”
Nina is passionate about telling the stories of artists and documenting their artistic processes, so that they can focus on creating. She’s written for a range of cultural magazines in the Netherlands, her homeland, including 3voor12 and the Groninger Museum. Her work as a contemporary art historian has seen her work at Museum Voorlinden, the Van Gogh Museum, and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Today, her main and ever-increasing focus is on the digital art world, and she is fascinated by the endless possibilities of web3 and how crypto artists are pushing the boundaries of creating without gatekeepers.
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