They weren?t meant to be framed. They were demos.
Bob Ross, oil on canvas, Alaskan landscape, from the collection of James L. Carter
I hadn?t thought about Bob Ross in decades until the year 2016. That year three students showed up dressed like him for Halloween. I?d come as Andy Warhol, but everyone thought I was Sia. ?Campbell?s soup?? I said, holding up the can I carried as an accessory, hoping to jog memories ? they?d learned about him during our lesson on Pop Art. ?Fifteen minutes of fame? Marilyn Monroe?? Meanwhile my art students were celebrating the kid in the chambray shirt with a curly wig and a paint palette, practically lifting the kid up on their shoulders. The Happy Little Accident guy? I thought. Really? Him?
It?s amazing what 20 years and the Internet will do. What goes around can come back to bite you with a vengeance. There I was ? happy my kids were excited about an artist. I was just worried it was the wrong one.
As an art student back in the 90?s Bob Ross was a bit of a joke. He had a squirrel in his pocket, seemed a little too goofy to be taken seriously (that hair for goodness sakes!) and as proof that he wasn?t a real artist: his artwork wasn?t for sale or shown in any gallery.
Bobette the Squirrel, from The Joy of Painting, season 4, episode 13, Absolutely Autumn
But what the me decades ago missed about Bob Ross is this: he was a teacher showing off his teaching, not an artist showing off his art. Art teachers do demonstrations (known as demos) all the time for every class, and Bob Ross did three for each show that aired ? one beforehand, one during the actual show and one afterwards. No wonder he chose not to sell these ?on air paintings.? They were process pieces meant only for the on-air show.
This is very much like what I do for each project I teach to my students. I do one completed piece beforehand as a sample and to problem-solve timing and the outcome. Then I do another, which I leave partially completed, so students can see how things are bound to look like a mess just before they come together. Then there?s the project I complete along with the students while the class happens live. These demos aren?t my best work. I?m busy talking, and I get distracted and forget a step here or there, and sometimes I make big mistakes (or happy accidents as Bob called them). I don?t mind these errors; it helps the students to see me as fallible and capable of working through mistakes. If anyone tried to argue about whether my demos were art or judge me as an artist based on them, I?d have to laugh. These demos are just simplified versions of what I expect from my students.
Here?s why it?s clear that Bob Ross?s paintings were demos and not meant to be viewed as fine art:
He painted from his imagination, not real life.
Bob Ross encouraged everyone to just plop in a river there, a tree here as if we?d all been privy to the Alaska he remembered. This was in direct opposition to everything I was taught in art school ? to observe from life ? never paint out of your head.
So, while it?s best for a fine artist to observe from life, a teacher can?t always do that in a classroom setting. I?m not going to be able to offer my young students a view of snow-capped Mt. Whitney or present them with vases full of real sunflowers class after class, but that doesn?t mean I can?t teach them the components and basics of painting or drawing these things. Sometimes it?s okay to have students draw or paint from their imaginations, as long as you are teaching them the elements and principles of art along the way.
In painting after painting, everything looks the same.
Those Bob Ross pine trees will look like the same Bob Ross pine trees in every single painting. This is the Bob Ross Method, people! It?s tried and true! Meanwhile Michelangelo only did one Statue of David, da Vinci just one Mona Lisa. Artists need to keep their voices fresh and bring new perspectives to their work.
Yet what that doesn?t account for is that Bob Ross is teaching people how to practice, practice, practice by doing study after study after study. It?s formulaic by design. That?s what I was missing back in the day when judging Bob Ross as an artist. These are demos. Demos aren?t meant to be fine art; they are studies. Bob was doing that pine tree again because he never knew if it was the same viewer tuning in again or someone new. He?s going to show you how to paint that pine tree in this setting and in that setting and in every setting, because, he has to keep it fresh for returning and new viewers alike.
He used a bunch of gimmicky tricks.
A fine artist doesn?t give up tricks of the trade for free ? because, hello! Then everyone would be copying them! Art teachers on the other hand want their students to succeed, thus Bob Ross, like any teacher worth his salt pulled the curtain back to reveal the wizardry ? a little palette knife here, a fan brush there, mix these three colors to get that outcome.
There wasn?t any deeper meaning to his work.
Landscapes can be meaningful when they speak to the human perspective, point of view and understanding and appreciation of the environment ? but a teacher doing a demo is merely demonstrating technique. While I want my students to go for meaning, whether moral, spiritual, or cultural, that?s not what I?m projecting as I teach. I?m merely laying the groundwork. I expect them to find their own significance and meaning after they?ve mastered technique.
He didn?t sell the works he produced on air but sometimes he donated them or gave them away.
An artist?s demos or studies aren?t always an artist?s best work. They?re meant to be rough drafts. We churn them out and then cast them off. I don?t mind giving away my demos to students here and there if they want them, but I never lay claim to them as art with a capital A, and only sign them if a student takes it (and not because I?m necessarily proud of it, only so people will know it was mine and not the student?s).
He painted his paintings lickety-split
It takes me at least five hours to paint anything good, but I can crank out a demo lickety-split. I have to inorder to fit the demonstration into the class period, just like Bob Ross ? who only had a half an hour show. Apparently he sometimes taped five shows in one day! His goal wasn?t to produce a masterpiece but to give the viewer an attainable goal that could happen in just one sitting.
There?s a reason Bob Ross?s paintings aren?t on the market for sale and instead are packed in boxes at Bob Ross, Inc ? and I?m sure that?s exactly how he wanted it. His demos were amazingly accomplished for how quickly he painted them, and I get why those who love him would want to own one, but I doubt he?d argue they were masterworks bound for a museum or gallery. As a teacher he knew their value was in the moment, for the viewer watching from home.
The artist in me twenty years ago thought Bob Ross was a hack, but the teacher in me begs to differ. I?m happy that he?s back in the limelight and being lauded as an inspiration to generations ? teachers so often don?t get the credit they?re due. Bob Ross was a creative, fun, and inspiring art instructor and that?s the best way to appreciate and remember him.