Why 500,000 People Are Lining Up to Watch Paint Dry
Meet YouTube’s quiet superstar: Martijn Doolaard, a semi-hermit Dutchman who has turned the slow, steady process of Alpine-cabin restoration into a masterpiece of performance art
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Last winter, laid up in bed with a severe bout of the Omicron variant, I began obsessively watching Martijn Doolaard’s YouTube channel. Doolaard is a 38-year-old Dutchman who, about a year earlier, had bought a set of primitive shepherd’s cabins in the western Italian Alps for less than the price of a decent new car. He had the immediate intent of fixing them up, and a broader, more abstract goal of living simply in nature.
The first video he posted, in October 2021, laid out what might be called the Doolaard style: A Kubrickian drone shot, gliding over a wooded, fog-enshrouded mountaintop, backed by a minimalist orchestral score. The shot then cuts to the back seat of his car, and we see Doolaard driving through the forest, en route to his new adventure. “Hey guys, welcome to this channel,” he says. “My name is Martijn Doolaard.” His first name, pronounced in the Dutch way, comes across as something like “muhr-tine.”
In the year since that humble start, over more than 50 episodes, he has built a feverishly devoted base of half a million subscribers and growing. They tune in to watch Doolaard, who uses a single tripod-mounted camera, the occasional drone, Google Sketch, a suite of power tools, and an almost preternatural sense of calm as he tackles a seemingly never-ending list of tasks involved in trying to make a home from a pair of century-old buildings that lack heat, plumbing, and electricity.
And while the performance of those tasks is shown in painstaking detail, one gets the sense that, for many viewers, this is far more than a home-improvement show. It’s a form of therapy—an antidote to modern life, online and off. It’s a small, carefully ordered world they can return to week after week.
“Every Monday morning I come to my office, turn on my computer, check for Martijn’s new video, and ask myself if I will ever be able to change my life the way he did,” one commenter writes. “We’re all mesmerized,” says another. “You’re quirky but common, quiet but full of expression, alone with a plethora of viewers, brilliant but humble, serious but whimsical and we can’t get enough.” Another fan puts it simply: “This is more addictive than love.”
I am one of those addicts. Bingeing doesn’t quite seem the right word; it feels more like lapping up a slow drip of sweet dew, a kind of IV for the soul. First there’s Doolaard himself. Tall, bearded, and wearing a dark, wide-brimmed hat, he looks plucked from the world of 17th-century Dutch portrait painting. Unlike so many frenetic, teeth-whitened influencers who populate social media, he struck me as a serene old soul—an idea further supported by the Amish hipster getups (suspenders, vests) he wears while sawing planks of wood or hauling rocks up a hill. Then there’s the way everything is shot, like Norwegian slow television with a healthy side helping of ASMR; I never imagined woodworking could be so worth watching or hearing. In line with the current vogue in social media of romanticizing your life, Doolaard has a way of making the most mundane things—polishing his work boots, brewing coffee in a moka pot—seem like reverential ceremonies.
There are any number of YouTubers chronicling the renovation of an old homestead in Alaska or France’s Loire Valley, but none have struck me in quite the same way. They aren’t as good with a camera; their content consists of couples or families, so you feel less like a spiritual partner in the project and more like an invited spectator; sometimes they get professional help for the hard stuff.
Doolaard, meanwhile, is an unabashed aesthete who turns manual labor into visual poetry. This is a man, after all, who admitted to buying a scythe to cut the grass because he saw a character do it in Terrence Malick’s 2019 film A Hidden Life. He’s not afraid of the hard stuff, plunging into fields in which he has no experience with a mixture of steadfast resolve and take-it-as-it-comes pragmatism. As he installed the first source of running water on the property—after watching some instructional YouTube videos—he looked at the plumbing line he’d just put in and said, with a shrug, “I hope it’s buried deep enough.” He’s learning in real time, making mistakes, and even these he handles with calm aplomb. As someone who tends to freak out when a screw gets stripped, I found it cathartic, and tremendously inspiring.
“I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” So wrote Henry David Thoreau, famously, in Walden, the totemic 19th-century ode to downscale, off-the-grid living. Thoreau’s simple life in the woods was never quite as simple as he made out—for one thing, he lived just a short walk from his family home, and received weekly visits from his mother and sisters. But the spirit of the thing endures, and I kept seeing parallels between Walden and Doolaard’s YouTube channel.
“I made a study of the ancient and indispensable art of bread making,” wrote Thoreau; Doolaard, during a number of episodes, experiments with baking over an open fire. Like Thoreau, who devoted a whole chapter of Walden to “Sounds,” Doolaard becomes exquisitely attuned to the natural soundscape around him—and learns to deal with his “brute neighbors,” meaning wildlife. And like Thoreau, who wrote, “I made no haste in my work, but rather made the most of it,” Doolaard seems as interested in the process as the result.
But what does it mean to live a Walden-like life of natural solitude in the always-on realm of social media, where your exploits are followed, in close to real time, by an audience of hundreds of thousands? What possesses someone to trade the comforts of contemporary life for cold outdoor showers and no mailing address, to tackle a tricky renovation amid challenging conditions, in a country where you don’t speak the language—and why would so many find that an appealing viewing experience? I wanted to meet the man behind the channel, so I headed to Italy.