What the Art World Can Learn from Bob Ross

The most famous painter in the US finally receives art world recognition

Bob Ross on The Joy of Painting, 1983–94. Courtesy: © Bob Ross Inc.; ® Bob Ross name and images are registered trademarks of Bob Ross Inc.

From 1983 to 1994 Bob Ross was a fixture on US public television. During each episode of The Joy of Painting, Ross narrated, in real time, the production of one oil painting while dropping Zen adages like: ‘You have happy accidents. And those happy accidents turn out to be some of the most fantastic things that can happen.’ While he produced thousands of works (often three of the same painting) over the show’s 31 seasons, they were rarely sold and only shown infrequently; Ross long insisted that his mission was pedagogical rather than commercial.

Bob Ross, Under Pastel Skies, 1993, oil on canvas, 46 × 61 cm. Courtesy: © Bob Ross Inc.; ® Bob Ross name and images are registered trademarks of Bob Ross Inc.

Yet Ross has enjoyed a spike in interest of late, perhaps owing to the entire run of Joy of Painting streaming on YouTube and, to an extent, on Netflix. Over the summer, he was shown alongside Liz Magic Laser, Rashid Johnson and others at ‘New Age, New Age: Strategies for Survival’ at the DePaul Art Museum in Chicago and, in July, the Smithsonian Institution announced that it acquired four of Ross’s paintings. The largest exhibition of his oeuvre to date – 24 landscapes culled from the 1993 sessions and archival video – is currently on display at the Franklin Park Arts Center in Purcellville, Virginia, nestled an hour from Washington in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The town of 10,000 is known for its local distillery and is a short drive from the headquarters of Bob Ross Inc., which still coordinates community art programmes. It was in this area that Ross was ‘discovered’ some 40 years ago, then a student of Bill Alexander, to whom he attributes the ‘wet-on-wet’ method of rapidly applying layers of oil pigment to a gessoed canvas during a brief window of time. There’s something impressionistic about this approach, working as it does to approximate rustic scenes in a picturesque mode. But where the impressionists relied on external perception, Ross’s signature move was to work indoors, tapping into the mind’s eye, encouraging the viewer at home to paint along and improvise. As one quote on the wall text at Franklin Park reminds viewers, ‘Painting is an individual thing. Each of us sees nature through different eyes.’

Franklin Park Arts Center, Purcellville, Virginia, USA. Courtesy: Franklin Park Arts Center

‘Happy Accidents: An Exhibit of Original Bob Ross Paintings’ has been a runaway hit, selling out its daily run and pulling in over 15,000 viewers in the last month. This was something of a surprise to the curator Elizabeth Bracey, as Ross has long been a marginal figure in the contemporary art world: a teacher rather than a gallery fixture; an optimist among the arch; a populist amid the elite. He was practical above all, wearing an Art Garfunkel-style perm and denim/Oxford uniform week-to-week for simplicity’s sake. Ross was an Air Force veteran and animal enthusiast who peppered his speech with Christian good-tidings. The paintings themselves draw on 19th century academic modes and were transmitted through the low-res medium of cathode-ray television.

For all that, as the exhibition makes clear, Ross is given short shrift. Taken together, one gets a clear sense of his affinities with Fluxus contemporaries such as John Cage, his delight in the small minutiae of life and his willingness to open his practice to spontaneity and chance. He invited viewers to court failure, carving ‘little trees’ or ramshackle cabins into the foreground of carefully plotted horizons. While the signature illusionism of Ross’s style gives way to rough knife and fan brush traces up close, he remains a master of light. The dense crowd commented repeatedly on the luministic ‘glow’ lighting boreal tundras and cypress marshes; Ross’s gloaming skies are stirring in person, amalgams of Phthalo, Cadmium and Alizarin comparing favourably to Turner or Moran. He deftly modelled soaring Alpine peaks like no one else.

Bob Ross, Sunset Aglow, 1993, oil on canvas, 46 × 61 cm. Courtesy: © Bob Ross Inc.; ® Bob Ross name and images are registered trademarks of Bob Ross Inc.

Technical matters aside, Ross resonates on a deep psychological stratum. The Joy of Painting aired in the morning hours after Sesame Street, burrowing its way into the subconscious of millions. It remains a nostalgic port of call in a turbulent sea of uncertainty. And then there’s the ‘Joy’ right in the title. As the man himself said, ‘If painting does nothing else for you, it should make you happy.’

‘Happy Accidents: An Exhibit of Original Bob Ross Paintings’ was presented at the Franklin Park Arts Center, Purcellville, USA, from 10 September to 15 October 2019.

Ian Bourland is a critic and an art historian at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA. He is a contributing editor of frieze

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