illustratingreddit

Aspiring artist Sandra Salsbury captures Reddit's imagination with incredible, watercolor paintings

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There are hidden stories on Reddit, hints of dreams and fantastical happenings concealed within photographs and thousand-long comment threads. Luckily for redditors, Sandra Salsbury is there to find them. And paint them.

You may have seen Salsbury’s paintings voted to the top of Reddit comment threads. Under the username illustratingreddit, Salsbury has become one of the most popular novelty accounts (users whose comments all follow a theme) on the social news site.

Her gimmick—though that word hardly seems fair—is this: She makes beautiful, watercolor paintings from popular images and comments.  

“Your imagination is limitless,” wrote one adoring fan recently. “I can't help but go through your history every time I see your posts and look everything over again.”

Salsbury’s ascendancy to Reddit fame has taken less than six weeks. With a bachelor’s and master’s from the Academy of Arts University in San Francisco, Salsbury’s dream for years has been to illustrate children’s books. But she stumbled a little out of the gates: To pursue that dream, she needed to be good at marketing herself and, as she she freely admits, she’s terrible at doing so.

Take her posts on Reddit, for example. Her paintings routinely shoot to the top of threads on a site that boasts more than 35 million visitors a month, but she still forgets to post a link to her website on nearly half of them. Maybe that’s because, as she told me via Skype, “When I created this account it was really just to get in the habit of making a painting every day.”

Promotion is an afterthought for Salsbury—even as she’s captured the imagination of millions.

Reddit’s free-wheeling comment section, ruled by upvotes and downvotes, creates a Darwinian environment for novelty accounts. Their survival is based on the cultural proclivities of the Reddit audience, and artistic interpretations of popular comments has a history of being well-rewarded.

Indeed, a number of similar novelty accounts have ridden the style to Reddit success: Reaction_On_My_Nub, Sure_Ill_Draw_That, and, Salsbury’s inspiration, Shitty_Watercolour. “Why can’t I do that?” she thought.

What makes Salsbury’s drawings stand out from the others—beyond her especially refined artistic technique—is that they tell a story. She reimagines the comments into something wholly new. It’s a trick Salsbury takes from her background in children’s books, where the illustrations create a parallel and yet unique universe, diverging from and complementing the words.

“I'm trying to do that with Reddit posts, add a little flair, add an extra dimension.”

—Sandra Salsbury

There’s more to it than that. Salsbury’s children’s book style works so well because it’s so fast, as Salsbury observed. She only has a few hours to paint and scan an image for it to still get noticed.

And there’s one other secret to Salsbury’s success—Reddit loves nostalgia. And what makes you more nostalgic than painting that reminds you of childhood?

The attention from Reddit has left Salsbury busy. She said she frequently receives commission work from redditors who’ve contacted her via private messages. And now she’s readying her next step: One of her paintings, of a dragon nest hidden under an ordinary deck, has become so popular on Reddit she plans plans to turn it into a full children’s book this summer. (You can see that image, along with others, in the collage below, assembled by redditor eonomine.)

What if that project, or her career in general, takes off? She certainly deserves it, many redditors would argue. But will Salsbury keep coming back to the social news site?

“I'd like to say I will. I don't know how busy I'll be in the future … As an artist, even if i'm working on books and doing things all day I still need my own things I create. These are doodles to me. Paintings on my website can take up to 30 hours. Three is nothing. It's a nice break, to paint something new.”

It says something of Salsbury’s gifts that her small but growing fame on Reddit has arisen solely from break-time doodles.

“Get your ass off Reddit and go become a famous artist!” redditor Kedawei commented on one of Salsbury’s illustrations.

Kedawei meant well. But that’s a terrible piece of advice. The redditor got it all backwards.

Illustrations and self-portrait by Sandra Salsbury