Note: this post discusses the recently released Bob Ross documentary on Netflix, so there may be some minor spoilers. However, nothing major in the film gets revealed. I did my best to give only the briefest of a synopsis, while focusing on the pedagogical and social takeaways of Ross’ career and personal life.
“Nothing and no one is perfect,” was more or less Bob Ross’ catchphrase to the millions of people who learned to paint from watching his show, The Joy of Painting. Although Ross was referring to the mistakes in his art, which he called “happy accidents,” the idea of turning problems into transformative new insights, experiences and perspectives, is an artful lesson that benefits our overall wellbeing and portrays how we can each make empathetic marks on the world.
Like everyone else, Ross was more than the sum of his work as an artist, educator and television personality. His complex persona was largely hidden from the masses. Most of us only knew the Bob Ross we saw on the television screen, painting captivating landscapes in front of his easel. A recently released documentary, called Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Greed and Betrayal, fills in the gaps between Ross as a public figure and a private citizen. Similar to his paintings, Ross’ persona consisted of many layers and a spectrum of mishaps and contretemps.
For those of us who were anxiously and perhaps unwillingly expecting to find that Ross lived a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde kind of life, fear not. From most accounts, Ross’ life outside of the television studio was not that much different from his upbeat and nurturing demeanor on The Joy of Painting. From the start, it becomes evident that Bob Ross implemented his student-centered and social and emotional method of art pedagogy across most other aspects of his life. He is described as a proud father and a loyal friend. But life for Ross was not always sitting on happy little clouds. One of the few mentioned darker elements included a brief moment of infidelity. His genuine sense of empathy and willingness to look for the good in everything, led to his being taken advantage of by his business partners. The latter is the crux of the new documentary, but the focus of this article is that Ross rarely faltered from his position as a public educator, friend and father in spite of so many obstacles, many of which were not publicly revealed during his lifetime.
Ross fell in love with oil painting while serving in the United States Air Force. His tenure in the armed forces enabled him to experience remote areas of the country, like Alaska’s wild frontier, which he later would paint from a combination of memory and imagination. He learned his trusty stylistic wet-on-wet oil painting technique from watching Bill Alexander’s show, The Magic of Oil Painting, and working alongside the German-American artist to teach painting at workshops across the country. His ability to teach painting to so many people with different backgrounds and prior experiences, as well as his calm and collected personality, laid the foundation for his own syndicated show, which quickly eclipsed Alexander’s in terms of viewership.
Ross became an unlikely celebrity by making art accessible to anyone who had the desire to paint. His assertion that “Talent is a pursued interest. Anything that you’re willing to practice, you can do” is an example of his impassioned belief in our combined creativity and tenacity, despite difficult circumstances. His method of teaching painting always included encouraging words of artistic wisdom, the most sustained being that artists turn mistakes into art (his “happy accidents” mantra). This philosophy is in line with the second (engage and persist) and seventh (stretch and explore) points from the eight “Studio Habits of Mind,” which were developed by Harvard University’s Project Zero (see: Rankine-Landers, 2015). The purpose of collecting and employing these habits of mind is to build greater understandings and an implementation for incorporating artistic thinking within our overall life experiences. As Ross shows us through his art and inspirational pep talks (see: Corday, 2019), thinking like an artist benefits several multidimensional facets of our human behavior, such as our observational skills, the ability to think critically and exhibit empathy towards others and the natural world.
In Ross’ mind, if there was one flawless aspect of life on Earth, it would be the natural ecosystem. In addition to his explorations of natural landscapes, Ross’ compassion for nature came from rescuing and fostering animals. Many of these rehabilitated animals made cameos on his show. His love for the environment is why nature’s majesty, prowess and phenomena are the main contents within a Bob Ross painting. He encouraged us to be humbled by nature, and through careful observation, develop a personal connection and sense of freedom by trusting the process and going with the flow instead of trying to obtain a preconceived notion.
Although Ross’ landscapes are devoid of human beings, there is definitely a strong element of humanity in his work. He described the way a painting can take the painter on an emotional journey, by saying that a painting “will bring a lot of good thoughts to your heart.”
While the second act of Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Greed and Betrayal is heartbreaking, there is a bright beacon of natural light at the end of the tunnel. Towards the conclusion of the film, we hear testimony from individuals who learned to cope with their traumatic experiences by watching Ross’ show. The crux of the transformational life lessons that many have learned from Ross can be summarized by three principles, believe in yourself, believe in others and work towards creating and sharing the beautiful life we all deserve. In Bob’s own words: “Let your imagination run wild, let your heart be your guide … In the time you sit around worrying about it, you could have completed a painting already. Let it happen.”
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Aima, Rahel. “9 Artists’ Art Lessons You Can Watch Online for Free.” Artsy, 10 April 2020. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-9-artists-art-lessons-watch-online-free
Brooks, Katherine. “Here Are 50 Bob Ross Quotes That Will Make Today Better.” Huffington Post, 29 October 2015. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/bob-ross-quotes_n_563138b3e4b00aa54a4c9271
Corday, Karen. “Feeling Down? Here Are the Best Bob Ross Pep Talks.” Hyperallergic, 13 May 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/499283/bob-ross-joy-of-painting-youtube/
Rankine-Landers, Mariah. “8 Habits of Thinking Learned from Artists.” Teaching Channel, 3 March 2015. https://www.teachingchannel.com/blog/habits-artists