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Bob Ross

"We don't make mistakes here, we just have happy accidents. We want happy, happy paintings. If you want sad things, watch the news. Everything is possible here. This is your little universe."

Bob Ross (October 29, 1942 - July 4, 1995) was a grandmaster American oil painter who primarily practiced the finer, more respectable arts of relaxation and kindness. His quiet, nurturing disposition was a form of therapy to the weary, and the reassuring intonations of his gentle voice hypnotized entire generations of would-be illustrators into creating a million-dollar art supply store enterprise.

His PBS series The Joy of Painting duped viewers around the globe into believing they too could create impeccable rectangles of content suitable for framing in just under twenty-six minutes. For this reason, it's no wonder The Joy of Painting is the most recognized and studied art show in the history of television. Ross's light, experimental excursions through nature and beyond have thrived since 1983 on over 300 public television stations -- a phenomenal achievement for programs of this genre. Every thirty minutes, on a public TV station somewhere in the United States, Bob Ross is just starting (or just finishing up) another masterpiece.

The phrase "harmless international cult" certainly applies. Foreign distribution of The Joy of Painting began in 1992. Responsive audience members armed themselves with palette knives, brush beater racks and base coats across the United Kingdom, Mexico, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Turkey, Iran, Hong Kong, Costa Rica and Germany. The Bob Ross machine continues to be an unstoppable force, as many of his original broadcasts tickle people's imaginations from the safety of a VCR or DVD player. What television neighbor Fred Rogers does for the lonely, alienated child, Bob Ross does for the isolated, emotionally unavailable adult. Or at least a person who considers his own existence to be more of a mistake than a happy accident. He accomplishes in mere minutes what it's taken Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, and the Deepak Chopracabra a lifetime to fail at.

"We tell people sometimes: we're like drug dealers. We come into town and get everybody absolutely addicted to painting. It doesn't take much to get you addicted," Ross says while touching up the branches on a birch tree with Titanium White. He gestures toward a limb with his angled sponge brush: "That's where the crows will sit. We'll have to install an elevator to get 'em up there because they can't fly. They don't know that, but they still try."

Not a tremendous amount is known about Ross's youth, but he spent most of it in Daytona Beach, Florida. He mentions from time to time his childhood pets: an alligator who constantly chomped at Ross's fingers until finally it was set loose, and an armadillo who "tore up" everything in his father's carpentry workshop. He intuited that painting could change a person's life in much the same way people gravitate toward music, writing, or gardening. Following a brief career in the U.S. Air Force, Ross started to develop a quick-study oil painting technique meant to appeal to the masses. By distilling the artistic process into steps and keeping the number of colors to a minimum, he grew to be one of the few artists whose name is associated with the "wet on wet" technique: the progressive addition of oil or watercolor to a canvas without wasting enormous amounts of time waiting for content to dry.

"Little bit of black, a little bit of blue.. some criss-cross strokes, or little x's, whatever you want to call them. Whatever. There you go."

His half-hour television performances unspooled before the cameras in more or less real time. The only sequences edited out were bloopers: his enormous house painting brush had a habit of knocking the canvas off its easel while Ross rhythmically dap-dap-dappled fall colors onto sycamore trees. And there were intermissions between strokes -- ranging anywhere from five minutes to an hour -- so layered undercoats of white or black gesso were allowed to dry. Not everything has to be "wet on wet," of course. This is your universe; feel free to experiment with hilly landscapes dotted with craggly trees, lush meadows, or snow-dusted farmhouse panoramas suitable for abandoning in a thrift store. While some folks distract themselves toting iPods of shitty music around like colostomy bags, others prefer to remain focused on a cardboard canvas with a modest fan brush.

Bob Ross was like a chef on the Food network capable of turning an ungreased cookie sheet into white chocolate cheesecake with caramelized apples on the side, simply by producing from under the counter a time-lapsed version prepared prior to taping.

Viewers sometimes felt like they were left standing in their kitchens without a VCR, struggling to follow along. The real reason folks at home couldn't immediately replicate his paintings? Ross infused about thirty years of practice into every stroke.

As he streaked his flat, disposable foam brush down the entire length of the canvas to paint the soft craggling of a birch, he'd pause to "dirty" his instrument on the palette so the painting would look better on television. By loading the bristles in a deliberate, gradated manner which took into account the fractal nature of bark patterns, or the leafy, hyperkinetic color schema of fall, or the predetermined uniform direction of celestial light sources, he was able to provide as much instruction as one could possibly telegraph into a video camera.

Bob Ross historian and former business associate Annette Kowalski (along with her husband Walt and their daughter) presently run Bob Ross Incorporated from the quiet, secret suburbs of Washington, D.C. People clamor for his books and videotapes, his brushes and paints, his discarded dropclothes. What kind of easel does he use? What's gesso? They want to know everything, and they're prepared to put it all down on their Discover card.

The Bob Ross empire leverages no small degree of delicate sorrow from its participants: often audience members fall in love with Ross before they realize he's been dead since 1995. Viewers who maintain emotionally wrenching, co-dependent television relationships with him latch onto him even harder once they discover he's "not here" any longer. They simply cannot let go.

Nearly twenty-four hours a day, a team of four operators fields calls from American viewers. Overseas sales are handled abroad. An army of dedicated, enthusiastic would-be painters strive to populate our world with the Bob Ross aesthetic. His namesake company has recruited and trained over 2000 art teachers, all of whom proudly wear the "Bob Ross Certified" logo, and all of them capable of delineating the proper technique for landscapes, wildlife, and flowers. Students have been known to pay $375.00 for an hour of instruction in the Bob Ross technique.

Co-owner Walt Kowalski: "The vast majority of people do have a private urge to be creative. Generally speaking, people think you have to be blessed with talent to be a painter. I think we've pretty much reversed that whole notion."

After Bob Ross died at the age of 52, the majority of his original oil paintings were donated to charity or PBS stations.

Meanwhile, a Louisiana band calling themselves The Bob Ross Experience continues to play gigs. Their influences include Poison, Dave Matthews and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Ross did in fact do a promotional spot for MTV (as well as posthumously appearing in a Celebrity Death Match videogame opposite Jerry Springer), but the bona-fide Bob Ross can only really be experienced in the syndicated wilderness of public television.


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