A lot of people will say they love Bob Ross, and though they may enjoy watching him paint, more times than not the compliment is tinged with a sense of irony, or an affection for the kitsch of it all. I don’t share that sentiment one bit. I sincerely think Bob Ross is an incredible artist. In fact, he’s probably a better artist than you or I. I have recently taken to watching an episode of ‘The Joy of Painting’ each night before bed, letting Bob Ross’ voice sooth me to slumber. After watching hundreds of episodes, I have started to develop a true appreciation for what a skilled painter, and businessman, Bob Ross was. I’d like to take a moment to explain why I think Bob was such an impressive artist, and hopefully help build a sense of appreciation for the man as an artist, and maybe inspire some of us to be better artists too.
He was a great teacher
Having been a teacher myself for more than 15 years, I can personally attest to the fact that not all great artists are great teachers. In fact, it’s less much common than you may think. The ability to vocalize and rationalize an inherently irrational craft is really difficult, and requires a special kind of skill set. It hard enough to know what you’re doing, but to also describe why you’re doing it is a skill that is vastly under appreciated by artists until they try it themselves. Furthermore, the ability to actually speak these notions aloud and continuously while working (and not simply labor away in silence) is an admirable skill that requires serious practice.
Check out the Season 1 finale below, where Bob answers all of his viewer’s questions while demonstrating the answers, in a special Q&A episode. I promise you, you’ll learn something new!
He knew his audience
Being a good teacher is more than just being able to convey information. You have to be able to convey it in such a way that is easily digestible to your audience. You have to know how much information your student can handle, and help them take baby steps toward a goal. One of my favorite moments in ‘Joy of Painting’ is when Bob begins to describe why he is softening edges and reducing the contrast of his background. He begins to say that it adds a sense of atmospheric perspective, but stops midsentence.
“It adds a sense of atmos…. It makes it look far away.”
Now, that is a man that knows his audience! He actually took a moment to think about how his audience would receive his words, and then altered his description, literally dumbing it down so that the layman could process the information better!
He disavowed the notion of ‘Talent’
Many people who don’t know how to draw or paint like to simply chalk their ignorance up to “A lack of God-given talent”. Bob knew that talent was a myth, and repeatedly said so on his show. He encourage everyone to give painting a try, and told them that with a little work, and a lot of passion, that they too could create something beautiful.
“I think there is an Artist hidden in the bottom of every single one of us. And here we will try to show you how to bring that artist out… to put it on canvas, because you too can paint almighty pictures. You know, we have avoided painting for so long because all of our lives we’ve been told you have to go to school half your life, maybe even have to be blessed by Michaelangelo at birth to ever be able to paint a picture. And here we want to show you that’s not true… that YOU can paint a picture right along with us.”
He let the paint work for him
During my education, I was often told by teachers to “let the paint do the work”, and although I understood this notion in theory, it was years before I actually began to implement it in practice. Paint, and tools, want to do certain things, and a good artist knows how to let them do that while still keeping them on a short leash. Bob Ross’ application of paint is wonderful example of this. His trees look effortless because they are. His brush naturally wants to make certain shapes, and so he lets it. Wether you’re a traditional artist, or a digital one, there is a lesson to be learned here.
He did multiple studies
We all know that we should do studies, and that our work will be better for it. But honestly, how many us actually DO them? We often skip these early steps, and tell ourselves that we will just figure it out we go. But more times than not, time doing studies is time well spent, and actually saves you time in the end. Bob Ross actually painted each painting you saw on his show THREE TIMES. Once before the show, so that he could experiment and have a good study to work from when painting live… A second time ON the show, which is what we all got to see… and then lastly, he would paint the image a third time AFTER the show so he could take his time and actually execute the painting the way he envisioned. The painting you saw develop on air was actually just a second study for a final painting. Now that is commitment to quality!
He used limited materials
It’s really easy to get caught up in purchasing materials hoping that just the right color, or just the right brush will be the panacea your painting has been needing. I myself often lay out upwards of 18 colors on my palette. Conversely, Bob kept his materials quite simple, and managed to do quite a lot with very little, often times using just 4 or 5 colors and a single brush for an entire painting.
Watch the video below to see Bob demonstrate an entire painting using only black and white for the sake of his color blind audience:
He understood the importance of texture
Texture is one of those things that really separates a novice painter from an experienced one. Not all things should be painted the same way. The way you paint fabric should not be the same way you paint skin. If you want a convincing result, the actual brush handling between surfaces needs to differ, and few people manage this as well as Bob Ross did. To this day, I can not handle a palette knife with anywhere near the finesse that Bob Ross does, and I think few people can.
He was fast
I sometimes spend DAYS considering and reconsidering the smallest of elements in a painting, always fussing endlessly over the dumbest of minutia… “Should this finger bend 40 degrees, or 45 degrees? 40 degrees or 45 degrees? Maybe I’ll split the difference!”
The kind of confidence it takes to execute a finished work in 25 minutes is incredible. I challenge any one here to try keep up with Bob as he paints, and finish a landscape from start to finish in that short amount of time. That’s difficult even digitally, let alone traditionally.
Below is a wonderdful example of just how much Bob could accomplish in this short amount of time. Don’t believe me? Just watch the last 5 minutes of this video and prepare to humbled.
He took a leap of faith
After being an Air Force Sergeant for 20 years, Bob Ross could have easily kept doing what he was doing and had a very comfortable retirement. But after selling some of his hobby works, he slowly began to earn as much from his paintings as he did from his military service. So he decided to take a plunge and pursue art for a living. As I’m sure many of our readers can personally attest to, quitting your day job in order to pursue art is an excruciatingly difficult decision! It takes overcoming a lot of fear, and a willingness to work hard. Quite honestly, many of us simply don’t have the guts to try it.
He respected other artists
Bob Ross was not the first oil painting instructor on Television, nor did he invent his technique. Bill Alexander of ‘The Magic of Oil Painting’, was one of Bob’s biggest influences and he had no problem admitting it. In fact, the very first episode of ‘The Joy of Painting’ is dedicated to Bill Alexander. But in addition to a deep respect for Bill, Bob often invited guest artists onto his show, knowing that his way of painting was by no means the only way to paint. In fact, some of Bob’s guests actively encouraged methods completely contrary to Bob’s. And still he continued to provide alternate points of view out of respect for his peers and his students.
He built an empire
As I mentioned earlier, Bob Ross was not the first artist to have his own TV Show. Jon Gnagy, Bob Cottle, and Bill Alexander all preceded him. But none of them turned their shows into a multi-million dollar business that has persevered for generations. Bob Ross has built a true legacy that any professional artist would be envious of. That is no easy feat in any field, let alone one as difficult as art.
He did it all in just 11 years
Bob Ross, got a very late start at pursuing art. He was 38 years old when he began his show ‘The Joy of Painting’ and sadly, died prematurely at the age of just 52. And still, Bob has personally estimated to have completed more than 30,000 paintings in his lifetime.
‘The Joy of Painting’ was filmed from 1983, through 1994.
That is just 11 years!
Many of us here on Muddy Colors have been professional illustrators for decades now, myself included, and have not had nearly the impact Bob has had. In 11 short years, Bob Ross went from a drill Sergeant with a passion for painting landscapes to one of the best known artists of the century.