30 January 2007

[art] Whither Bob Ross and Happy Bushes and Trees

723 Bob Ross.

He's got no galleries named for him; no career retrospectives coming, no monographs being published, no critical reappraisment seems in any way imminent. But, because of him, more Americans are wielding oil paints than ever before, if the PR is to be believed. What does not seem to be a matter of opinion is this: the conventional wisdom holds that his half-hour PBS (typically) instructional, The Joy of Painting, is the single most popular program of its type ever seen; we will tacitly accept that its continued availablity in many markets, almost 13 years since his rather untimely death from leukaemia in 1995, serves as adequate evidence of this.

We have had respect and awe for the Ross method, where a variety of wet-on-wet oil panting is practiced, but as EmptyEasel notes here, have had our doubts about its effectiveness at creating actual artists.

We do not come necessarily to praise the late Mr. Ross, nor necessarily to bury him further. Furthermore, we are not CRI-playa-hatas; after watching the Ross method in action we find that a lot of people derive happiness and fun from producing Ross-style paintings.

It must be said, though, that we find the typical Ross-method paining unremarkable, the sort of thing you'll find in hotel-rooms and for sale at those "starving artist" road shows that occaisionally come to the nearest fairground/convention center/roadside inn.

We've arrived at this conclusion after years of being a quite devoted fan of The Joy of Painting. This program, which ran for around 10 years through seemingly uncounted series and over 30 volumes of at-home "how-to" books featuring detailed instructions on how to reproduce the paintings seen on the show, has developed a cult following both ironic and non-ironic, and the show can be enjoyed for its mere presentation value alone; utterly confident with his materials and tools, Ross produced a completed imaginary oil landscape in a mere 25 minutes, more or less, complete with a folksy, low-key style complete with a soothing voice which has been compared with tranqulizers such as Xanax; quite a few of his signature phrases, particularly those about happy clouds, trees, and especially happy accidents, have become similarly iconic.

I always liked him saying "just a hair, and some air", when lightly applying paint.

The Ross Method

The process of oil painting is something masters aspire to for a reason; it is sometimes complicated (with the art theory required to properly nurture and mature the talent) and time consuming (parts of a painting are typically painted and then set aside to [at least partially] dry).

Ross method painting, on the other hand, and when done as Bob did it has a name in the art world: alla prima, which is Italian for "all at once"; the painting is done in a single sitting. For this to be possible, the additional paints must be applied while other parts of the painting is wet, or very fresh. This is known as "wet-in-wet" or "wet-on-wet" painting. From our understanding of wet-on-wet, a reason an artist will explore this method is because of the color mixing that can happen between the wet colors which can produce unexpectedly interesting and unusual effects.

However, if one tried to paint Ross method with traditional oil paints and brushes one would find an unexepected adventure in painting; our guess is that the results would be quite different. Ross oils are thicker than traditional oils, and the tools one uses are a rather limited selection of a small handful of brushes (including two landscape brushes that look like house painting brushes) and palette knives of unique design. The Ross technique absolutely depends on using these non-traditional tools, as mentioned in the how-to literature our own autographed (seriously!) Joy of Painting collection, and even on the Bob Ross website:
Bob's amazing technique works because of the special tools he uses. In addition to the special basecoat, he has developed brushes and paints that are quite different from traditional painting materials. Without them, the quick and easy results cannot be achieved.
The "special basecoat" mentioned is called Bob Ross Liquid White (there is also a Liquid Black), and must go on before any of the other paints are applied.

Exploiting the System

Computer programmers know the value of portablility and the value of exploiting inherent benefits of any system. Designing applications to a universally-accepted standard is the best way of assuring that the application designed will run on the widest variety of platforms. Inherent in any system are exploitable benefits, however; they are available, and can vastly improve the performance in a given environment, but if used the range of platforms which can run the design can decrease in kind. You lose portablility.

It's a tradeoff.

By the same token, the Ross method has to have certain tools that work just so; a certain thickness, a certain style of use. We think it not unreasonable to say that, at its heart, the Ross method may produce very apt Bob Ross-style painters, but it won't, in and of itself, produce many capable artists. The Ross method is very unportable.

While we will cop to not being apt enough to produce professional art ourselves, we have aptitude in drawing and are not unfamiliar with the watercolor (you want living on the edge, paint watercolor. Trust us on that). We have, however, had a bit more art training than the average bear, and producing art is more than just knowing how to put paint creditably on a canvas or paper.

Artist not only produce compelling works, they learn, at an early point, how to look. This is hard to put into few words, and goes very deep. In naturalistic landscapes, which don't necessarily lend themselves to viewer interpretation, and the reproduction is very faithful to what the artist has seen, the artist has usually spent time sketching, exploring, and really getting to know the landscape. Even when painted as a strict interpretation, the artist has added insight and interpretation to it, raising it to the level of art.

What our training taught us is that looking is great, but seeing is better. The Ross method goes nowhere near this.

EmptyEasel has the right of it: the Ross method teaches a kit approach, where every item has a prescribed use, which leads to a legion of similar-looking works, with no hooks for artistic growth and providing no obvious way of going beyond the imaginary scene.

We did enjoy Bob's program for many years, but quit watching when we realized that creativity and talent are not required.

So, What's The Use?

Earlier we said that we come not to praise Bob but not to bury him further. Time to make good on that promise.

We, despite what we see are the flaws inherent in painting with the Ross method, don't think that it's without value. It should, however, not be seen as the be- and end-all of learning how to paint.

Learning Bob Ross painting technique provides, at least, the benefit of brining a novice out of thier artistic shell. This is probably the first time any of them have ever bought a serious art supply before, and this will introduce them to the process (and expense!) of buying art materials, and get them over the considerable intimidation factor in using art materials. It also connects them to a larger community of like-minded novice artists.

Commercially, the motivated Ross-method painter will probably want to avail themselves of BRI Certified Instructor status, which can lead to a profitable side-occupation in art instruction. Moreover, it occurs to us that a lot of people who paint don't want to be professional artists: The Joy of Painting is much more about the fulfilling act of creation than anything else. Most people don't desire to move outside of hobby-painting; Ross-method is perfect for this audience.

But as an entry to art Ross-method can only be seen as that: an entry-level experience. The aspiring artist who starts by learning the Ross way really just learns to paint the sort of picture Bob Ross would have painted; this, in our opinion, is where they're getting shortchanged. We think if you've tested the Ross-method to its limit and want to do more, what you ought to do is begin reading up on how to paint in general; you can get this at the local Community College or even at the local public library.

The Ross-method may or may not be innovative (even he learned it from someone), but if you really want to try it, it would be most valuable when seen for what it is, so you can either enjoy it to its full, and move on when ready–if that's what you're after.

If you do want to learn to paint the Ross way, BRI has a website located here.

Bob Ross To Go can be had instantly at YouTube.com, and The Best of The Joy of Painting can currently be seen Tuesdays at 13:00 on OPB.

Tags: , , ,


Anonymous said...

It must suck to be you, to write such non-sense that you have. it must suck as well to be an artist and not have an imagination. what a pity. why would you write what you did because obvious it makes no sense whatever.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

Well, it kinda does suck to be me...but not for any of those reasons.

Personal problems. Life ain't all a bed of roses.

Now Debbie, normally, I'd just let a comment like yours slide because, well, why bother? It's a pretty dumb one and life's short. But I noticed your slender command of grammar and spelling and also the fact of you courageously marking yourself as anonymous; and this combined with that I've been in a foul mood for the last couple of weeks means I get to abuse you.

I'll also, Josie, refer to you by randomly selected girls' names, proving I have a much more firm grasp of nonsense (we actually don't hyphenate that word these days) than you do, though your hit-and-run comment gave me a run for my money.

You see, Margaret, if there's anything obvious about this is that you really didn't read (or if you did, you didn't comprehend) my post; moreover (that's a big word, so I'll wait for you to look it up...okay, you're back, good) had you read the succeeding article on this blog you'd have noticed, Georgette, that I have a bit more admiration for Mr Ross than you apparently give me credit for.

The meat of the issue, Arlene, is that I don't think the Ross Method is bad. I do think that it limits you creatively. Ross Method can (heavy emphasis on the word can) be more of a crutch in the end rather than a liberating thing.

I know that went right over your head, Linda, but I'm having fun making fun of you. It's my blog. Deal with it.

In the end, though, I don't get as many readers and links as I'd like to have, so actually every visitor is special to me. Though you're extra special.

So, Regina, thanks for stopping by.