Sunday, October 5, 2014

Robert Norman "Bob" Ross (1942-1995)

"We don't make mistakes; we just have happy accidents." 
Bob Ross's The Joy of Painting, aired 1983 –1994
Bob Ross, "Alaskan Waterfall"
 original oil on canvas, 18" x 24" [1]
Perhaps one of the fondest memories of my childhood was waking up early on Saturday mornings, grabbing my art kit with numerous hues of oil colors and brushes of various shapes, just to sit in front of the TV with a canvas (and a bowl of odorless paint thinner), all set up to watch a new re-run of The Joy of Painting. Robert Norman "Bob" Ross will always be renowned as an American cultural icon of the twentieth century. Aside from popularizing a simple, yet profound, painting technique, his personality and charisma resonated with art lovers worldwide.
A native Floridian, Bob Ross was born in Daytona in 1942 and grew up working as a carpenter with his father. At the early age of 17, he enlisted in the United States Air Force where he was eventually transferred to Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. It is often thought that the intricate seasonal landscapes he saw while stationed there largely influenced the subject matter and themes of his later works [3].  While working as a bartender during his station in Alaska, he discovered Bill Alexander, a German painter who hosted a show called The Magic World of Oil Painting. Retiring from the Air Force after twenty years with the rank of Master Sergeant, he went on to attend various art schools, ultimately learning the “wet-on-wet” oil technique he is famous for from Alexander, whom he eventually became rivals with. It was only a matter of time that his talent and technique earned him his own instructional program, The Joy of Painting, on CBS in 1983, running for a very successful thirty-one seasons [5]. 

I feel that the most astounding aspect of Ross’s technique is (what I perceive as) the unresolved paradox of creating both 1.) realistic subject matter 2.) in under thirty minutes, all with 3.) very broad, seemingly careless strokes. The wet-on-wet technique he used, quite literally, involves applying wet paint to layers of previously-applied wet paint [4]. Given the opaque nature of oil colors, it would seem that such rapid, active mixing of colors on colors would require far more precision than Ross would portray. Nevertheless, every broad stroke smudge would soon transform into an imaginary landscape (literally) before my eyes. 

Bob Ross, "Northern Lights," original oil on canvas, 18" x 24"
The wet-on-wet technique is not all I found unique about Ross's technique. Here, in his paintings, "Northern Lights" and "Mountain Retreat" as in many others of his that include mountains, he uses a slanted painting knife to create the snow-covered mountains: in virtually under one minute, by scraping an uneven mix of paint from his palette and then sliding the knife against the canvas, he forms the entire mountain range – edges, depth, and value accounted for.  
Bob Ross, "Mountain Retreat," original oil on canvas,  20" x 24"
Bob Ross, "South View of the Mountain," original oil on canvas,  20" x 22"
Ultimately, Ross's brushing techniques capitalized on his manipulations with "wet-on-wet": from the 2" thick brush he'd used to form broad clouds or bushy trees to his fan brush that could fill an evergreen tree from bottom to top in seconds. I feel as though the effortless nature of the technique connotes much of what Ross set out to inspire in his viewers through his art. When asked about why his paintings always seemed too "happy," he responded with, 
"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." 

Bob Ross, "Bubbling Stream," original oil on canvas, 20" x 22"
Bob Ross, "Bubbling Stream," original oil on canvas, 20" x 24"
As a native New Yorker and frequenter of The Met and the MoMA, I could name several, more "well-respected" artists I could have chosen whose works I've admired for years. I think it was partially the impression Ross left my childhood self but more so my respect for artists who can impact a broad audience through their work.
Works Cited
[1] Art Gallery World Headquarters. "Bob Ross." Original Paintings for Sale. Original Art Broker, 2011. Web. 05 Oct. 2014.
[2] "Bob Ross, 52, Dies; Was Painter on TV." The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 July 1995. Web. 05 Oct. 2014.
[3] "Bob Ross." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 10 July 2014. Web. 05 Oct. 2014.
[4] J. & T. Blackman Ltd. "Traditional and Wet-on-wet Oil Painting Techniques." Traditional and Wet-on-wet Oil Painting Techniques. Zest-it, 2014. Web. 05 Oct. 2014.
[5] "Robert Norman Ross." Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 05 Oct. 2014.