Cometh the hour, cometh the mediocre painter: Churchill in 1940, Bob Ross today. Twenty-five years after his death, the big-haired American art tutor is back, teaching us how to knock up a landscape in oils in 30 minutes with just house painter’s bristles and all the Zen in the universe.
For BBC Four, which since April has nightly aired 30-year-old repeats of The Joy of Painting, Ross has brought nothing but joy. The other week his art class was its second most watched program, bettering by more than 100,000 viewers a big new documentary about Beethoven. As a token of its regard, the channel followed Tuesday night’s The Joy of Painting with a 2011 documentary, Bob Ross: the Happy Painter, a celebration of the air force sergeant turned paint whisperer who has taught millions to paint (sort of) and brought half-hours of well-being to many more.
This carpenter’s son has been called God. So far, immortality is going well for him.
Ross’s afro haircut was born of poverty — a perm, he realized, would reduce the necessity of frequenting a barber’s shop — but, accompanied by his beard, it became his logo, stenciled on to tins of oil paint that bore his name. It was his manner of speaking, not his look, that was his greatest asset, however. Amid the hucksterism of American TV, Ross spoke low and with pauses from the sanctuary of public service television. His favorite word was “happy” and his second favorite was “little”. When he announced he was going to go “crazy”, he meant he was about to paint a bigger tree, but he always gave this giant a “friend” in the form of another tree.
In his tiny black-curtained studio he completed a snow scene as speedily as Monet polished off a lily pond. The strokes that produced a happy little cloud, a meandering river or an icy mountain peak were brisk and certain. His painting technique was impressive all the way up to the result, which was always disappointing, but his middling achievements were easily replicable by those watching. One cannot imagine anyone, however ham-fisted, asking for a refund from one of the painting courses taught by 3,000 registered instructors from the US to Korea.
His famous fans ranged from Jane Seymour to Marlon Brando and, to judge from Tuesday’s documentary, included a lot of country music singers. In 1994 the American chat show host Phil Donahue called him the most famous painter in the history of the universe (although in Britain, Rolf Harris would have pipped him to the title). A year later he was dead, killed by a terrible lymphoma that he first suffered as a young man.
Amid the hucksterism of American TV, Ross spoke low and with pauses from the sanctuary of public service television.
Bob Ross Inc, which by now sold not just paints and videos, but board games and happy little dolls of the man himself, nevertheless endured. Its owners, a former CIA man called Walt Kowalski and his wife, Annette (who discovered Ross on a painting class and mortgaged their house to start a business with him), wisely decided not to replace their star turn, but keep licensing his reruns.
In 2005 YouTube started showing The Joy of Painting, picking from a back catalogue of 403 episodes made between 1983 and 1994. Some have been viewed by tens of millions. A decade on, Twitch, an online site designed for video-gamers, decided it wanted to encourage people to stream art on an associated platform. Over eight days it ran a back-to-back Joy of Painting marathon that attracted five million views. Bob Ross marathons now happen every weekend on Twitch. They have bestowed on Ross followers who were still to be born when he died in 1995.
An even younger crowd now views him on TikTok, or rather they watch an impudent youngster in a wig called Josiah Hughes impersonate him (as if we all haven’t done that). Last year the house containing Ross’s old broadcast studio became a Bob Ross museum. A Bob Ross 5km race in Michigan attracted 20,000 entrants in a week. An exhibition of his work opened in Virginia.
And then came the pandemic, for which Ross has become the still, low voice of calm.
Sarah Strohl, who works with Walt, Annette and their daughter Joan at Bob Ross Inc’s HQ in Virginia, tells me that traffic to their company’s site has greatly increased. People are ordering DVDs and buying painting kits, then e-mailing or Instagramming their resulting paintings. “When there is a lot of stress, people turn to Bob Ross,” Strohl says. “People are stuck at home, and one great thing you can do in your house, which is also a way of stepping away from all the stress of the world, is to paint a happy world where nothing bad is going on.”
On the Donahue program the overimpressed host pushed Ross to say that his achievements might one day hang in a museum. He conceded that some might, but “probably not the Smithsonian”. (He was wrong: the museum acquired some last year.) He made no claims for his work. “It is not traditional art and it is not fine art and I don’t try to tell anyone it is,” he said.
What he was selling was a method. It requires the artist to paint wet paint on to wet paint on a canvas primed with white. Alla prima, as this is called, is not new. Van Eyck partly employed it in The Arnolfini Portrait and it was used alfresco by impressionists such as Monet. Ross’s inspiration, however, was simply another PBS tutor, a German called Bill Alexander, who literally handed over the baton (well, brush) to him on camera before later claiming, as Ross’s fame eclipsed his, that he had been plagiarized. That was surely the wrong word. Alexander’s technique was always all about copying, not originality.
There are now so many paintings that could plausibly have been painted by Ross that Bob Ross Inc authenticates them not by studying the brushstrokes but by scrutinizing the signature. We shall never, however, see Fiona Bruce pursue an alleged Bob Ross’s true provenance on Fake or Fortune? Paintings in Ross’s “style” sell on eBay for $12.75, whereas real ones go for between $8,000 and $10,000.
“When there is a lot of stress, people turn to Bob Ross.”
The ignorant say that they do not know much about art, but they know what they like. The informed know what they hate. Gordon Highmoor, a respected Northumbrian artist and for many years a WEA painting tutor, is among the latter.
“Bob Ross was absolutely formulaic,” he tells me. “He does the same thing every night. My wife watches it and she is fascinated by the way he paints, but I can’t stand it. I think he is color-blind, for a start, and he can’t do perspective, for another thing. All he does is the happy tree in the foreground and the happy mountain in the background. It is absolute tosh.” So it is not the way Highmoor taught art? “No. I used to know some of the Ashington pitmen painters and I liked the way that [their teacher] Robert Lyon went about it. He got them to paint their own experiences. He wasn’t bothered about doing exercises on how to hold your brush and stuff like that. I was interested in people’s experiences.”
Not many of Ross’s followers, it is true, will have experienced the Alaska that Ross painted after being posted there as a young air force medical records technician. There is no doubt, however, that Ross engaged with a landscape so alien to a native Floridian. He was a lover of nature and of wildlife. For a while he would report to viewers on the progress of a squirrel called Peapod that he had adopted as a pet. By all accounts he liked people too, and people certainly liked him.
What is interesting, perhaps, is what his paintings excluded. Squirrels, for a start, and all other fauna too. As far as is known, he painted a person into a picture only once, the small silhouette of a cowboy resting against a tree by a campfire. Huts occur frequently, but they are always abandoned; on a recently shown program he speculated, humorously one hopes, that an owner of one of them might have grown tipsy and drowned in the nearby river. His interest was in mountains, rivers, seas and botanically unidentifiable trees. He anthropomorphized landscapes even more than Wordsworth in The Prelude. Read into his unpopulated landscapes what you must, but the possibility is that he simply painted what most easily he could. People are harder to capture than cumulonimbus.
Since, according to the documentary, only 3 percent of his viewers ever lift a brush, it may be more rewarding to speculate on what so many love about his work. It offers, of course, the consolations of eternity, of majestic panoramas that will outlive us, but his deserted landscapes are also places of safety. This is partly because they are free of predators, humans included, but also because they have the potential to be created by us, the artist. In an episode of the Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show Mark (David Mitchell), in search of romantic advice, switches to The Joy of Painting to seek a sign from Ross. His flatmate Jeremy (Robert Webb) agrees: “Let God decide.” A painter, like God, can, after all, move mountains.
Let us admit, then, that many like the paintings, but surely all love his process, which means loving the man. He is our Henry David Thoreau, a self-exile from society who retires to the woods to discover the “essential facts of life” (his original plan was to present The Joy of Painting from a mocked-up wooden cabin). He is our inner child’s Fred Rogers, public service television’s gifted infant-wrangler, who told us how to handle our “mad” (Ross said we must “beat the Devil” out of our overloaded paint brushes). His is our Pangloss who insisted that on a canvas there are no mistakes, “only happy accidents”.
A happy life, though? His first marriage ended in divorce, his second in his spouse’s death. He suffered prolonged ill health, including a heart attack, and was killed by blood cancer at 52. Yet he gave nothing of this away, painting the best of all possible worlds, forests where no Covid stalked. He was above all the kindest of therapists, a former drill sergeant who, tired of shouting, determined to speak softly for the rest of his days. He said that on air he talked to just one person, “and I’m really crazy about that person”. Millions were, and remain, crazy about him back. It is a happy little transference. Does it matter what we say about Bob Ross’s art? His patter was all.
Bob Ross: The Happy Painter is available to rent or buy on Amazon