Painters and critics have argued over the merits of Bob Ross’s teaching style since the time he began his PBS Show in 1983. He did hundreds of paintings for his show, which was geared to beginners for 11 years. The object of his PBC broadcast was to break down the barriers for beginner painters who were wanting step by step instruction.
Ross’s soothing voice and friendly style gave beginners the confidence and opportunity to follow along and create something from nothing. He made painting approachable using a wet-in-wet paint approach. But all along, the show was meant to be the start of the artistic journey. It was never intended to be the end. This is where the critics go wrong about Ross. His detractors are plenty and his fans even more, but love him or hate him, Ross was/is an entrance to the world of painting.
Ross’s shows aired until his death from cancer in 1995, but the demand for his videos continues to grow on YouTube, Twitch and numerous websites. The desire to learn how to enter the world of painting continues to draw would-be painters the world over. You can learn the gritty details about Ross on Wikipedia. This post isn’t so much about history as about methods.
You would never guess this guy was a sergeant in the Air Force by his soothing kindly voice. This alone was reassuring and made his lessons approachable. Let’s face it, most people starting out would find any excuse to stop something as intimidating as painting. Ross put nervous learners at ease.
Knowing how to do anything is the key to moving forward. Giving a student a brush and paint and walking away would be silly. So Ross showed how to do many things, one step at a time. He later would have his son read the viewer’s letters and answer them by showing, not telling.
For a beginner, showing how to is gold. As a result, Ross naturally created his own brand. He put out his own line of paints and supplies, along with books and videos to satisfy the demand of his followers. His son revealed that Ross was not really into it for the money. He chose to stick to his niche as a gatekeeper to the world of painting. But painters progress and move on. Ross knew that and didn’t begrudge them growing up artistically. That was his goal after all. He just kept sowing seeds and untold numbers of beginners love him for that.
Sadly – The Cons…
As an instructor to new painters, Ross never moved on from teaching the basics. His paintings were all from his imagination and limited to symbols of items, not grounded in precision or reality for the most part.
So naturally, beginners move on from Ross after a while. They grow disillusioned by the lack of teaching about recreating what they see, not what they imagined.
It became quickly apparent that the brand of Ross paints didn’t lend itself to realism. The paint is too wet for too long. Wet paint is nearly impossible to create detail with. Ross never taught how to deal with proportional objects or perspective. He was very light on theory.
As a result, most Ross-type paintings are contrived, static, idealistic representations of childhood symbols. The impressionists turned away from the ideal Renaissance style to a more chunky, realism, which depicted life as it was, not as ideal. Ross would show you how to do trees, water, and mountains but not a specific place.
Yes, you have some flexibility with landscapes, but if you are painting A place, you have to have most of the big details to render the scene, even loosely. This is where the need for a photo reference comes in. The photo has to be the start of the scene, even if you stray and move buildings and remove clutter.
And Ross’s technique completely fails when comes to painting people. You can paint an image of a generic person, but not THE person with his style. Well. I haven’t seen it done anywhere, but A person is not THE person. But to do that requires study of the human body and face, lessons far above the Ross technique.
So Ross is a wonderful place to start for an absolute beginner. But like growing up, we have to leave the elementary behind us and learn more seriously to advance. But never forget your teacher. And if Bob Ross was your introduction (like mine), revere him as your kindergarten art teacher and be thankful for the gentle introduction to art-making.