Image Credit: Haiden Goggin
"Certainly glad to see you today, it’s a fantastic day here, and I hope it is wherever you’re at”. This is how our painting session begins. A few students assembled in the kitchen, crowded around a laptop, precariously balanced on the side of a settee. Our teacher, Bob, was reeling off colours like Phthalo blue, dark sienna and Van Dyke brown, while we dusted off some unused poster paints, all primary colours, exhumed from some long-discarded Christmas present. Our assembly had managed to beg, borrow and steal a couple of old paint brushes, and household plates became a necessary substitute for the artist’s pallet. This was far from any ordinary Mondayists. Nonetheless we had decided to raise our paintbrushes in tribute to the beloved artist and meme icon that is Bob Ross, born on this day, 29 October 1942. For those who don’t know, Bob, he hosted the wildly successful television program, The Joy of Painting. Characterised by Bob’s smooth allAmerican voice, his iconic perm, and his idyllic north-western landscape paintings, complete with placid lakes, snow-capped mountains, and (of course) Bob’s “happy little trees” The Joy of Painting beguilingly draws the viewer into a surprising reinterpretation of the 16th century painting technique Alla Prima (more fittingly “first attempt”) where the wet on wet technique allegedly gets you to finished work in under half an hour…
Over the three decades since The Joy of Painting was first aired in 1983 and sadly 24 years since his untimely death at the age of 52, this unassuming painter, with his Oxford shirt and worn blue jeans still has an undeniable pull on the viewer, whether amateur painter or just an avid seeker of ASMR. With this in mind, I assembled a group o f stressed out undergrads, desperately in need of some art therapy, to discover just what makes a first wet on wet attempt with Bob Ross such a pull for over a million subscribers to his Netflix shows today.
It begins badly. Having perused the archives of Bob’s painting classes beforehand, I assumed the task at hand would be easy. Photos of amateur painters beaming next to their picture-perfect copies of Bob’s flawless landscapes filled me with an enormous sense of misguided confidence. The reality was very different. We discover that poster paints are far too thick and stiff to replicate Ross’s light, delicate Alaska skies. The subtle hint of colour Bob adds to brighten the water or dimension to the clouds give way to monstrous overstatements in our paintings; mountains slavered with pinkish snow sludge. Giant yellow waves rearing out of unsettled seas. Where Bob is producing an arsenal of fan brushes and palette knives to sculpt craggy rock faces and delicately edge in fir trees, we find ourselves “innovating”. One amongst us drags butter knives across his page, in the hope of recreating Bob’s seamless illusion of mist among the hills. What is left is more akin to Old London Town pea-Souper; unduly thick, and mushy pea green, obscuring everything that was painted underneath (oops.) Another rogue abandons Ross’ formula completely, producing luridly coloured squares, surrounded by solid black lines, perhaps reminiscent of Mondrian, with just a touch of Bob’s mountain for dramatic effect.
By this point we are all feeling fairly defeated. Not least because Bob keeps insisting: “See I told you all this was going to be a very simple little painting.”
We stop and start the video endlessly, replaying certain parts, adding dashes of blue, and green sporadically in the hope that our paintings will begin to resemble something, ANYTHING. I might mention that our own resident Mondrian is exempt from the groupthink, coolly adding horizontal lines to his creation, telling us proudly, that they represent the night encroaching on the day. Sure thing daddyo. And then something happens. Mountains begin to emerge against an azure skyline. The murky, indistinct foreground gains focus. A strong impression of a forest takes shape. And not only trees but the reflections of trees, rippling almost palpably in the water below. Are they excellent? No, not by any means. But as our paintings coalesce, something comes over the faces of our little party. A feeling of something accomplished washes over our little band of would be artists. This is the magic of Bob Ross. There are no smoke and mirrors with his work. Just a man and his canvas, painting away. His infinitely calm demeanour makes him the ideal teacher, but there is more. Bob fosters a one on one relationship with the viewer that draws you in. You are the protégé at the masters easel, there to do your best work for him. Better still, there are no failures in his class, just “happy accidents”.
And as you work alongside him, you find yourself painting your own little world. This world is as much a part of the process of painting as the finished result. The mindful repetitions of the brush against the canvas sees you retreat further and further into your creation. The act of escapism is as profound as the images you can’t quite believe you are left with, (even with the pink snow and the yellow waves). Bob is an icon because his Television personality and everything that emanates from it is simple. The relationship he fosters with the viewer does not adhere to the rules and complexities of the real world. We don’t see Bob on a bad day. In fact, we don’t really know Robert Norman Ross at all. We were not privy to his 20 years of military service. We never saw the strained relationships left in the wake of his hectic filming schedule, nor the intense preparation that went into every painting, episode and manual he created. But every day, for half an hour at a time, we get the best of Bob. And maybe the best of ourselves too. The dynamic is easy, nothing is at stake, and every stroke of paint feels like a step towards accomplishment. At times, Bob is strangely profound. Amongst all the raucous laughter, frantic painting, and quite exceptional wine drinking, one comment from Bob made us all rather reflective: “You absolutely have to have dark in order to have light.” He tells us, painting away all the while, brushing in a little stretch of land, across the lake. “It’s like inlife; you gotta have a little sadness once in a while so you know when the good times come. I’m waiting on the good times now ”. And as he says this, he’s looking up from where he’s mixing paint, and suddenly Bob Ross feels more present in the room than ever.
At the end of the night we decided to sign our paintings. A couple of members, spontaneously sign them Bob Ross, or just ROSS, in prominent red letters. And I suppose that got me thinking. Whatever you take away from The Joy of Painting, whether it be his stoic wisdom or his iconic hairdo, Bob has signed himself into a little corner of our lives. “So from all of us here I’d like to wish you happy painting, and God bless my friend.