Visual Arts

Bob Norman Ross: Teacher, Painter, Optimist (October 29, 1942 – July 4, 1995)

Ian Mathers

His way of gently exhorting the view at home to “be brave” when they were deciding what to do first, to not be afraid of that terrifying gulf that confronts every artist when you can do anything or nothing was peacefully encouraging.

Bob Ross spent 20 years in the Air Force, most of it in Alaska (a place he loved and often returned to in his paintings) and much of it yelling at people. He developed his painting technique -- which for twelve years let him finish a landscape in half an hour -- partly so he could paint during work breaks, but he soon discovered that his paintings could actually make him more money than his military job. So he quit and swore never to scream at anybody again. I have no idea if he succeeded in his personal life, but his public television show The Joy of Painting was an almost excessively pure exemplar of that desire. Bob believed that everyone, if they just relaxed and practiced, possesses artistic talent. His wet-on-wet painting technique (whatever its aesthetic limitations) meant that if you messed something up it was fairly easy to correct (or at least incorporate that mistake into your painting). From 1983 until 1995 and Bob’s death after a long illness, every week he’d paint and keep up a running commentary in his everybody’s-grandfather voice, explaining how to paint the way he did.

But he did more than that. He’d tell stories about his time in Alaska, not to mention his love of the wilderness and of animals. (He’d often nurse injured or sick or just weak squirrels and other wild animals back to health, sometimes bringing them into the studio for a visit). And in little asides, he’d give insight into his view of the world and of art. He was famous for saying “we don’t make mistakes, we make happy little accidents,” and that was a big part of what I call (without sarcasm) his philosophy.

He was fond of starting a painting, with that mostly blank canvas in front of him, by gently exhorting the viewer painting along at home to “be brave” when they were deciding what to do first, to not be afraid of that terrifying gulf that confronts every artist when you can do anything or nothing. He frequently reminded viewers that when they were painting they got to choose what to do and how, and that we should do what makes us happy. His presence on television was a constantly reassuring, soothing one; the most violent he ever got was to “beat the devil out of” his paintbrush to remove paint, something almost always accompanied by a little smile and a laugh. He’d begin every episode by welcoming you back to the show, and end each by saying “so from all of us here, I’d like to wish you happy painting, and God bless.” From most other people, I’d probably find that cloying, but Bob never felt condescending or mawkish. This was a man palpably at peace with himself, doing something he loved, wanting nothing more than to include you.

I’ve never painted a Bob Ross painting, and I doubt I ever will, but his influence on me as an artist is significant. For Bob, art is about personal expression, not about doing what we think we ought to accomplish or what others want from us. To quote the episode I’ve got playing at I write, “this is your world, so you do anything you wanna do here.” As an artist, there’s a weird mental duality you need to approach your own work if you’re trying to create anything good. On the one hand, you have to be your own harshest critic (often depressingly easy); thinking you’re great is the pride that cometh before a fall. But if you’re ever going to finish anything, let alone show it to anyone else, you have to genuinely believe that you have something worth saying, in whatever medium you’re working. Bob Ross is the patron saint of the latter tendency, a man with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of gentle support. Because he focused on effort and intention in his rambling dialogues rather than results (except for his own, of course, which were presented with a minimum of hubris), you never got the impression he’d uncritically approve of just anything you threw together so much as he supported the idea of artistic endeavor, undertaken in the right spirit, whether or not the result was anything he himself would enjoy.

Ross made his money from a small empire of painting supplies, schools, and teachings; he donated his show to the public television stations he appeared on (admittedly, the bare bones production suggests it was easy and cheap to make, and the publicity was invaluable), and he donated the paintings he did to the same stations for their fundraising efforts. Even after his death, his company donated most of his paintings to those stations and other charities. Certainly Bob Ross was materially successful, but watching his show, you get the overriding impression of a man with very simple loves, namely wildlife and painting and teaching, a man who almost regards the commercial part of his craft as secondary to the opportunity to spend half an hour with you, helping you create something, anything.

As much as Ross’s sincerity and sentiment is unpopular today -- hell, it’s almost always been unpopular in Western culture -- I get the sense that his re-appropriation by modern hipster culture as a t-shirt icon is less ironic than most. Every young person I’ve encountered who’s heard of Bob Ross seems to genuinely love him. Whatever you think of his occasionally gorgeous, mostly florid paintings, in the man’s actual presence it’s hard to feel anything but affection towards him. He’s somehow not kitsch, not camp, not “so bad it’s good”; and if you abstract the lessons he teaches away from the specifics of painting and outward towards artistic creation as a whole, he’s surprisingly sharp. And while his unfailingly positive worldview certainly doesn’t sum up the whole of modern life, he never pretends it does. He once said, “I got a letter from somebody here a while back, and they said, ‘Bob, everything in your world seems to be happy.’ That’s for sure. That’s why I paint. It’s because I can create the kind of world that I want, and I can make this world as happy as I want it. Shoot, if you want bad stuff, watch the news.”

For me, the enduring legacy of Bob Ross has little to do with painting (although Bob Ross, Inc., is still doing very well). Instead it’s when I’m staring at a blank Word document and I don’t know where to start, I can hear him saying “just be brave” before I plunge into a sentence, the way that he encourages us to forge ahead without agonizing over perfection, the way he finds mistakes and slips nearly as productive as the things we do flawlessly. And it’s the way that no matter how upset I am, no matter what’s going on, if I put on an episode of The Joy of Painting, I feel better about myself and the world by the time it’s done.

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