It is rare that I have a chance to sit and enjoy Bob Ross in the middle of the day on the local public television network. When it is possible to catch an entire episode, it is fascinating to see how quickly Bob Ross adds layers to create a landscape painting of mountains, forest, or a coastline with a lighthouse. His style is distinctly different from other contemporary popular landscape painters like Thomas Kinkade. Bob Ross captivates people as he quickly moves paint and brush across the canvas and television screen. His narrative moves much more slowly than the action of painting. Nature painting is no longer just painting. It is meditation. The Bob Ross voice is constant, calm, and radiates positivity. Happy little trees and happy clouds are added to the scene every time. The calm nature of Bob Ross’s voice and unwavering positivity is what I used to soothe my baby to sleep at naptime so that I could catch a few minutes of my own crafty creative time as a new mother.
I am sure some adults find the soothing nature of Bob Ross’s television tutorials encouragement enough to attempt to paint landscapes. They probably believe that if they buy all the tools, palette, brushes, and paints that it would be possible to follow along with the show. As I watch the show, I believe it would be impossible to watch Bob Ross paint on the television show and paint alongside it on a canvas in real time. You would need to “press pause” to let you catch up to how quickly his landscape painting progress on the show. Perhaps that is why the Bob Ross classes were started. They let fans of the show who wanted to really paint landscapes learn how to do so. At one point, when I saw a job posting for a Certified Ross Instructor of painting, I thought it sounded like a great job. “Anyone can enter the program, you only need the desire to paint.”
Before Bob Ross had a television program, kids might have enjoyed “Show ‘N Tell” PictureSound programs produced by General Electric. In the cover illustration for the title Let’s Paint Pictures, two children are using the phono-viewer machine to listen to a vinyl 33 1/3 phonograph record and watch a film strip on a screen that appears to be showing a toothbrush dripping with paint. If kids hadn’t previously thought of toothbrushes as painting tools, this cover suggests it is normal practice for art making. This early phono-viewer art lesson seems like a very easy way to entertain and think about possible art projects before art lesson television shows existed.
As someone who grew up painting and drawing in the eighties, I remember books like Drawing with Children by Mona Brookes, a guide for parents to provide a nurturing environment for a child’s creative exploration. The Monart method in Drawing with Children has a few step-by-step guides to drawing specific things, but also describes how to take a mistake and turn it into something else in the picture. This aligns with Bob Ross’s saying, “We don’t make mistakes; we have happy accidents.” All sorts of fantastic and beautiful things “just sorta happen” when Bob Ross paints, and he encourages people to just let them happen.
Paint-by-numbers sets and coloring books are less forgiving. The tools in a paint-by-numbers are real paints and brushes, canvases, and strict instructions with numbers. Coloring books give images that require coloring with a crayon and keeping inside the lines. This goes against everything Betty Edwards would explain in her 1979 book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The book acknowledges modern brain science that shows that the left side of the brain thinks serially and reduces thoughts to numbers and words and rational thoughts. The right side thinks in patterns, pictures, and holistically. This idea is from the neuropsychologist Dr. Roger W. Sperry who worked on right- and left-brain thinking in the 1970s. When Betty Edwards applied the research to art, it seemed to make sense to draw with the right brain, let the part of the brain that handles patterns construct a holistic picture of something. It is hard for some people to block out the left brain that comes in and says something is the wrong proportion or doesn’t look like what you are trying to draw. It discourages most adults who want to paint or draw, seeing that the result isn’t pleasing to the left brain’s critical thinking. When kids draw stick figures and sunshine and houses, they aren’t thinking about what humans or buildings really look like. They are letting their right brain and their hands make a pattern and representation to the best of their abilities.
If you have ever played a game where you have to draw something and people guess at what you mean, you will find that right brain and left brain are at odds – a hasty pattern and scribble of a symbol needs to be good enough for all the left-brain guessers in the audience to know what to call it with the verbal, rational part of their brain. They also need to know enough patterns and symbols to have the right brain interpret the whole picture. Whichever side of the brain you use, drawing with kids and adults is a fun way to play. Bob Ross reminds people that painting should be fun, and perhaps that is why so many fans look to collect bobblehead figures, toys, and even Chia Pets that look like Bob Ross. A little icon of Bob Ross on your desk might help remind you that there are happy accidents, happy little trees, and happy little clouds.