Popular amongst amateur artists, why is Bob Ross and his painting technique not accepted in the professional art world?
The unprecedented global disaster of 2020 has demolished the freedom of life as we know it. This forceful shutdown has revealed art to a new audience. Artists such as Bob Ross through his accessible method of oil painting, has seen a resurgence of interest in this art form, perceived as challenging. During my early teenage years, a gift that solidified an interest in art was the Bob Ross, The Joy of Painting oil set. When painting, Ross’s technique was normally practiced, and drawings were abstract pen marks. Whilst serving in the Royal Navy, art almost took a step backwards, however during difficult times, art was essential to maintaining a balanced mental health. Bob Ross became my creative heroAt university, it came to my attention that when Bob Ross is mentioned as an artist, although well liked, there is an air of mockery and a general atmosphere that Ross is not respected as an artist. When researching top ten famous artist of the world (Boco Do Loba, 2017) Bob Ross does not appear on the list or any other similar sites. This essay endeavours to investigate why.
Ross uses the wet-on wet technique. The formal term is ‘Alla Prima’ which is an Italian phrase meaning ‘at first’ or ‘at once’ (Colling English Dictionary, 2021). It is also referred to as direct painting. According to Connie Lee (2019), the author of the website explore-drawing-painting.com, a Flemish painter called Frans Hals was the original creator of the Alla Prima technique. However, the earliest recorded use is by Jan Van Eyck’s in his Arnolfini Wedding Portrait from 1434 (Heaston, 2013) which uses a mix of traditional and wet on wet methods. Artists have used this method as many claimed, as it allows freedom of movement and expression on a canvas (Heaston, 2013). This freedom permitted artists to paint speedily, when historically, it took many days for one layer to dry before another could be applied and years before the painting finished curing. The practicality of using oil paint in this manner meant that paintings that usually took several sittings over a span of months, could now potentially be done in one. Admittedly, this sitting could vary between four to six hours (Grace, 2005). Depending which source is referenced, the traditional method of oil painting, could require anything from ten sittings (York, 2020) to over one hundred as done by artist Paul Cezanne (Smith, 2011). Some Artists took years to complete a painting. One example is Leonardo da Vinci who took roughly four years to complete the Mona Lisa (Grace, 2005).
In direct contrast, for artists such as Vincent Van Gogh the traditional indirect oil painting method was too slow for what they wanted to achieve. In a letter to his brother, Theo August, regarding the wet on wet technique, Gogh wrote ‘with considerable speed and with lengthy practice, it enables one to draw at lightning speed and, once the lines are fixed, to paint at lightning speed’ (Van Gogh Studio, n.d). I have developed a new appreciation for Van Gogh from the research carried out. This technique survived throughout different art eras and became the method of choice for artist, William Alexander the tutor of Bob Ross.
Alexander had a challenging childhood in his hometown in east Prussia, however it is reported that he was always able to spot the beauty of nature. It was his perpetual interest in art that led him to paint (Alexander Art, 2015). Over the years Alexander travelled around America painting for a living. During this time Alexander at one of his live painting demonstrations was approached by Bob Ross and Ross signed up for his Classes. The number of classes Ross took is not actually mentioned bar to say ‘a few’ (Stockton, 2017). Eventually Ross would later set up his own painting show and business. It was Ross’s painting show, the Joy of painting, that was repeated during lockdown which caused a surge of interest in oil painting.
This renewed interest led me to conduct a small survey in a non-art environment. This was to explore how known Bob Ross is outside the art world (appendix A). A Total of 36 people, where asked a simple question: ‘Do you know the artist Bob Ross?’ which would be followed by another question ‘Did you like him?’ 11 said yes, they had heard of him and did indeed like his show. The remainder said no they had not heard of Bob Ross so where unable to give an opinion. What was noted is that the few who did know of Ross spoke fondly and with enthusiasm about him, usually adding ‘I must watch him again’ as they left. This research into Bob Ross leads to an understanding as to why Ross is not respected as an artist.
Ross in interviews had stated that he had previously sought education in art before he had met his tutor. The common thread throughout the research, is Ross’s blatant plagiarism of his tutor and his indifference to be accepted within the contemporary art world (Stanley,1991). His apathy to be classed as an artist, could be perceived as a challenge against multiple art manifestos created throughout history, defining what classifies as art. To add insult to injury to those who dislike Ross’s apathy, Ross claims he has already gained the recognition that others in the art industry seek for years. It is argued that Ross’s ‘tricks of the trade’ potentially deprive fledgling artists from going through the traditional routes to creating recognisable paintings, condemned by Keith Frank (Stanley, 1991) as ‘thoughtless and formulaic’.
The works of Alexander and Ross draw many parallels. Appendix B identifies the similarities between the two artists which has drawn speculation around plagiarism. When considering the definition of Plagiarism; ‘the process or practice of using another person’s ideas or work and pretending that it is your own’ (Cambridge University Press, 2021), it is conceivable that Ross has essentially plagiarised his tutor. Plagiarism is severely frowned upon in the art world and in universities is punishable by expulsion. The defining difference between the two men is their personalities, Alexander was fiery and explosive whereas Ross was calm and quiet (Kleon, 2012). Alexander stated in in the New York Time interview (Stanley,1991) ‘He betrayed me, I invented ‘wet on wet.’ I trained him and he is copying me — what bothers me is not just that he betrayed me, but that he thinks he can do it better’. Despite the acknowledgement of plagiarism, what I find peculiar is that when enquiring at Alexander Art, via email (Appendix C), it transpires that legal action was never taken against Ross despite the recorded bitterness.
In conclusion, the reason why Ross and his painting technique are not accepted in the professional art world is due to a combination of factors. Ross’s lack of originality and his arrogance rejecting an invitation to join the professional art world both influence this. What cannot be taken away from Ross, is his ability to introduce and sell oil painting to new members of the art world. This ability has allowed his methods to travel around the world giving people the confidence to try their hand at painting. This research has changed my view of Bob Ross. I no longer class him as my creative hero but have relegated him to ‘easy listening’ on a Sunday afternoon.
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Similarities between William Alexander and Bob Ross.
|William Alexander||Bob Ross|
|Blacked out background||Blacked out background|
|Happy trees||Happy trees|
|Aimed to teach||Aimed to teach|
|Promote own brand of paints and brushes||Promote own brand of paints and brushes|
|Painted landscapes||Painted landscapes|
|Hosted by PBS||Hosted by PBS|
|States anyone can do this||States anyone can do this|
|Paints in front of the audience from the get-go||Paints in front of the audience from the get- go|
|Fantasy painter||Fantasy painter|
Full email conversation.
Mar 10, 2021, 9:38 EST
I am doing a university paper on a creative hero, I was hoping to find out some information on whether or not William Alexander actually claimed Bob Ross for plagiarism? any help would be greatly appreciated.
kindest of regards
Laurie Anderson (Alexander Art)
Mar 10, 2021, 11:06 EST
Who is the creative hero you are writing about? If you are writing about Bill Alexander, who has an amazing story, we can help.
Mar 10, 2021, 11:09 EST
I am writing about bob ross his student, before starting this essay I had no idea of the history between ross and Bill. Needless to say my views have changed.
Laurie Anderson (Alexander Art)
Mar 10, 2021, 11:12 EST
You might want to look into Bill’s story. It is an amazing story.
How have your views changed?
Sorry we can’t help you with Bob Ross.
Mar 10, 2021, 11:15 EST
I have read Bill’s story which Is why I am asking did Bill Alexander take any legal action against Bob Ross?
Laurie Anderson (Alexander Art)
Mar 10, 2021, 11:20 EST
Not that I know of. Bill wasn’t that kind of man. I started working with Bill the year Bob left the company and I don’t know if him taking legal action.
Mar 10, 2021, 11:24 EST
Thank you so much for clearing that up for me, I would have dearly liked to have met Bill especially after researching him. Again thank you for your help.
My most kindest and heartfelt thanks,
Laurie Anderson (Alexander Art)
Mar 10, 2021, 11:32 EST
Bill was a beautiful human being. I was fortunate to work with him for 11 years before he passed away. He truly was an American treasure.
Thanks for reaching out to us.
Have a great day.