Technique vs Joy of Painting

Just recently Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting TV show was released on YouTube.  I think it is safe to say that most everyone who knows of Bob Ross was excited to hear that news.  I remember when I was a kid watching an episode of Bob Ross’ show for the first time.  I was completely mesmerized.  In a scant half hour, Bob Ross turned a blank canvas into a finished pastoral scene.  It seemed like such a feat of skill to me, but he made it look so easy.  I dreamed of one day painting like Bob Ross, of making a scene come alive from nothing.  But I was a child under ten years old, so I knew my skills were nowhere near up to the task.  I would have to wait and keep practicing before attempting to move from childish drawings to finished paintings.

It was not until 10th grade in high school that I made my first real painting with acrylic, and not until the next year that I made my first oil painting.  Now that I have had significant training in painting, watching Bob Ross is a different experience than when I was a child.  Now I know that his method of painting is highly unusual.  To understand why Bob Ross’ method is unorthodox, let me first elucidate some of the properties of oil paint.

One of the best aspects of oil paint is how slowly it dries.  If you make a mistake, you can simply take a rag and wipe it off.  Didn’t get the color quite right?  Go ahead and mix colors right on the canvas.  As long as the paint is still wet, you can move it around, take it off, and color mix as much as you want.  However, for those untrained in how to use oils, and even occasionally for those who are, the slow drying time also can be the hardest thing to handle about oil paint.  If you want to layer the paint, you have to wait until it is completely dry, which can take anywhere from hours to days, depending on the pigment and thickness of the paint.

White dries the slowest out of all the pigments.  Blacks dry the fastest, so usually you want to start building the painting up with the darker colors and later work your way to adding the lighter colors.  Also, adding too much white into a color and moving it around on the canvas excessively makes the color very chalky and flat.  So, you want to add white last in select places, because it dries very slowly, and the more you mess with it and spread it across the canvas, the higher the likelihood you will start getting chalky colors.

If you follow Bob Ross’ painting method, he could be setting you up for failure.  You are supposed to use white last, but he uses it first as a wet ground to place all the other colors.  I have not put it to the test, but I suspect if you were to follow along with Bob Ross’ show, as soon as you try to wipe away an area or mix colors on the canvas, you would be met with a small disaster.

However, painting pointers are hardly why we watch Bob Ross.  It is mesmerizing to watch him pull together a painting so fast.  Admittedly, he does have good technique with a palette knife and brush, and he does an admirable job of explaining how to use the tools the way he does.  But it is his soothing voice that really pulls the watcher in.  He creates a story for his paintings.  Along the way, Bob Ross gives his viewers life advice as he talks about his paintings.  He gently gives his viewers permission to fail, to experiment, and to be more observant.  He makes people feel allowed to paint for themselves so they can find joy, have a creative outlet, and become a better person who can let go of the notion of perfection.  His life advice and message that art is for everyone is why we really love Bob Ross.  So, while I would not necessarily recommend learning all of your painting techniques from Bob Ross, I would encourage you to watch an episode or two of The Joy of Painting and take to heart his saying that “there’s no such thing as a mistake, just happy little accidents.”


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