Over the past 30-plus years, Bob Ross’s meditative DIY series, The Joy of Painting, has amassed a following of hippies and hipsters. Admirers often cite as reasons to tune in Ross’s gentle voice, his innocent commitment to the lowliest form of art, the waiting room landscape, and probably most enthusiastically, Ross’s glorious head of hair.
Above all that, Ross offered a behind-the-scenes look at the choices working painters make, choices of line, texture, composition, and color. His technique is ineluctably facile, entailing the mixing of incongruous colors—bright yellows, brown, blue, white—with a paintbrush that doesn’t at all resemble standard art-school issue. “I can do that!” we exclaim at his easy strokes, but we don’t. Where would we even start? At Michael’s? Hobby Lobby? Sherwin Williams? Target and Walmart stock an assortment of brushes and small pre-stretched canvases, but there can’t be a soul there with an inkling of what Phthalo blue is.
For all their lack of initiative, Bob Ross fans probably could tell you what Phthalo blue is, or could at least point to it on a color card. Gaining a keener, nuanced grasp of color is one of the show’s geeky pleasures. Internet color nerdom indicates a debate over whether the color is warm or cool, or is even purely a blue. Its greenish tint has raised questions whether Phthalo blue can even perform a blue’s requisite task of combining with yellows or reds to produce recognizable secondary colors. It’s but one of a dozen oddly named, highly nuanced colors Ross favored. The Ross palette also includes Indian Yellow, Van Dyke Brown, Titanium White, and Alizarin Crimson. Some colors on the Ross palette evoke the pigment’s chemical makeup; others suggest historical figures or practices. Indian Yellow, some have claimed, is named for the color of the urine pissed in rural parts of the Indian subcontinent by cows on a strict diet of water and mango leaves.
In Ross’s hands, blues, browns, yellows, and reds cast a pensive pall over his wintry landscapes. Ross seemed drawn to a place far from his Florida studio and a time that might’ve been 20 years before. There’s some evidence, mostly anecdotal, that Ross was rendering his memories of the majestic Alaskan wilderness he encountered one or two decades prior to his TV show.
It’s a memory Ross returned to obsessively in his shows, with little variation. In this idyllic Alaskan world there are spruces, built up by sharp jabbing gestures into artificial Christmas Tree-like perfection. There are lakes, holding dim reflections of somber sunlight and looming mountain ranges. And there are those mountains, which Ross started as black outlines and layered into mottled detail, with snowcaps and tree lines. Ross built up his topography with a deftness and assurance that I find confounding. He had no regard for fine gesture. A pointillist like Georges Seurat or impressionist like Claude Monet might agonize over each brush stroke and its integration into composite image and effect. Ross hardly ever used a brush smaller than one might use to paint a kitchen cabinet. With such implements, Ross found a fairly workable shortcut to layering color and gesture in a quick and easy manner suitable to mass production. He did for painting what Stouffer’s did for baking lasagna.
Which is to say, Ross’s work works. It serves at least a couple of purposes, in fact, both mental-health related. For Ross, painting had all the markers of art therapy. As an Air Force drill sergeant, Ross gained the reputation as a strict taskmaster. In reality, Ross was probably more of a gentle hippie, for whom painting was a path back to his true self. Occasionally Ross slaps his brush on the side of his easel—making the sound of a dog flapping its ears, or maybe a cartoon beaver tail putting the finishing touches on a dam. It’s probably the loudest moment in a Bob Ross broadcast. The rest is soothing description of process, the sort of play-by-play commentary a nurse might mumble while changing a baby’s diaper. For viewers, watching Ross paint is therapy enough. This has to be the case. Although Ross would occasionally feature the work of a viewer who had applied Ross’s methods, I doubt there have been that many who tune in to learn how to paint, no more than we tune in to HGTV to experience the thrill of hanging drywall. Watching Ross paint washes over the viewer like a centering prayer or reciting the Rosary.
This successive unfolding of an image through layering has a name—alla prima, or more colloquially, wet-on-wet. That it has a name attests to what might be a startling fact for some: Ross’s technique isn’t really Ross’s. According to what’s surely the only scholarly source on the painter, Happy Clouds, Happy Trees: The Bob Ross Phenomenon, a painter by the name of William Alexander taught the wet-on-wet method to Ross. The method is obviously a quick way to pop out a painting. Ross soon saw that the wet-on-wet method could produce attractive landscapes in the standard 27 minutes and even allow a minute or two to haul out a rescued baby raccoon for a little screen time.
Ross understood that watching him paint wasn’t so much instructive as restorative. For me, I like The Joy of Painting more for the joy than for the painting. I want to see the world Bob Ross sees, as he sees it because I want to live it as he apparently lived it. It’s not just the world he’s projecting onto a canvas but the one he shows us on screen.