It's not very hip for a grown man to say things like "happy little trees" and "pretty little mountains" -- that is, if he wants to keep his street cred. Bob Ross -- with his big 'fro, unbuttoned shirt, and virtually narcotic voice -- probably never even knew what street cred was. But that didn't keep him from becoming a spokesman for MTV and making a bunch of bored college kids think PBS is rad and oil painting is cool.
Ross, whose television show Joy of Painting debuted in 1981, was a Cliffs Notes version of art class. His antics attracted a cult following, some of whom actually painted. Most just tuned in to watch him as he made bushes for all the "bunny rabbits and squirrels to hide in" and giggled as he "beat the devil out" of his paint brush on his easel. They weren't laughing at him but with him as he turned black splotches on a white canvas into a highly detailed landscape -- complete with waterfalls, rocks, and trees -- in 27 minutes or less, using the style of painting he developed so people with no art experience could paint something themselves.
He wanted to take the intimidation factor out of painting, and encouraged watchers with phrases such as, "There are no such things as mistakes, just happy accidents." His technique involved painting with oils on a wet canvas to create layers and textures. He offered simple tips such as "wiggling" the brush across the canvas to make trees and bushes, and using a knife to make perfect barn roofs. Painting was a journey for him, and on the way he'd make sound effects (he'd make a sound like schlep when he painted waterfalls) and tell stories. He'd paint a "happy little bush" and then paint another so it wouldn't be lonely. He conceded that people said his paintings looked like part of a paint-by-number set, but he wasn't doing it to be groundbreaking. He just wanted everyone to know how to paint.
He was endearing in a folksy, behind-the-times sort of way. At the end of the program, when the camera would pull back to show the whole painting, he'd smile; everyone at home would too. It wasn't glamorous work. In fact, it was more akin to dollar-store calendars and motel-wall hangings than museum work. But the childlike awe we felt came from knowing he did all of it as we watched. Somewhere along the way, he was elevated from PBS TV-show host to a patron of pop culture. The New York Times went so far as to claim he's the world's most recognizable painter. And like most world-famous painters, he's dead.
Though he died in 1995, his spirit lives on. He has a permanent place at PBS, and there's an army of Certified Ross Instructors (CRIs) to spread the good word nearly 500 times a day at various workshops across the globe. Enter Irving's own Joe Stratton, who has been a CRI since 1991. He studied at one of the Ross schools and passed the final test of teaching a painting to a class in 27 minutes or less, just like Ross -- even though it takes about four hours to teach a painting in the actual classes. Most teachers use paintings from Ross' books, but Stratton likes to teach using some of his own paintings, which are still done with the Ross technique. He furnishes the supplies (except canvas and paper towels) so students don't have to invest in expensive art supplies before they know whether they're truly interested in painting. Gosh, that's so Bob Ross of him. It's almost as if Ross watches over each class, smiling and saying, as he did at the end of every show, "Happy painting and God bless, my friend."
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