September: My editor emails me asking if I’d like to write a piece about a book called “Painting With Bob Ross.” She is referring to the cherubic host of the 80s-era PBS show called “The Joy of Painting,” who, I am told, is the object of an unlikely posthumous revival among the young and hip.
Saturday: “Painting With Bob Ross” arrives in the mail. I open the book and am immediately assaulted by the jarring spectacle of gentle post-hippie spirituality at war with naked corporatism. The book’s introduction is a tribute to Bob Ross’s “quiet, nurturing disposition” and is directly followed by a two-page spread of Bob Ross-branded art supplies, all featuring his visage with its famous corona of soft, curly hair. I am urged to use Bob’s “specially designed materials,” which are “uniquely formulated” to “produce the Bob Ross Wet-on-Wet Technique®”
This is not to say, the text continues, that I “still can’t enjoy using this instructional book to create masterpieces with other tools and paints.” Do I detect a faint tone of disappointment? I do! I’m soon told that you “can use any paint you like, of course, but you’ll need to adjust the color and application to achieve the desired effect.”
Generally speaking, I am easily cowed, reliably eager “to achieve the desired effect.” However, I am also interested in not spending, say, the equivalent of my entire fee for this assignment on Bob Ross-branded gear. At my local art store, I buy a canvas and some low-quality brushes, but for paint I plan on making do with a bottom drawer full of old acrylic paints I have accumulated over a decade-plus of desultory amateur dilettantism.
Monday: Bristling with optimism, I unwrap my canvas and brushes, put on some Mingus, and get to it. I decide, more or less at random, to paint “Lakeside Path,” a shimmering vernal tableau which falls almost exactly halfway through “Painting With Bob Ross.” In no time at all, I am vigorously swishing paint across the canvas, creating the happiest of happy little clouds. Whee! This is fun.
Tuesday: Bob wants me to “load a fan brush” with a variety of colors, including Van Dyke brown. I don’t have any Van Dyke brown. I improvise by mixing a hodgepodge of black and red and fluorescent yellow. This will come back to haunt me.
Tuesday, later: The countertops in my kitchen are covered with paint tubes and spatter; the effect is vaguely bohemian. I stand there in my undershirt, jazz blaring, brush in hand, scowling down at my canvas. I feel like Jackson Pollock.
Wednesday: When I look at my painting in the clear light of morning, it seems clumsy and murky. In the evening, I push on grimly through steps 3 through 5. Step 6 is accompanied by a text box with a message from Bob, in an aggressively twee typeface: “You can move mountains, rivers, trees. You can determine what your world is like.” I’d settle for determining what this painting is like. I’m grumpy.
Thursday: I’ve gone rogue. The precipitating event was the reappearance of an incomprehensible instruction to apply some Van Dyke brown “using so little pressure that the paint ‘breaks.’” I stop straining to follow the cryptic directions, and I start winging it. Swish, swish, swish.
Friday, very early: I can’t sleep and find myself wondering if Bob’s resurgent popularity represents a cunningly planned-out, super-sophisticated form of postmodernist conceptual art. I think of Sol LeWitt, whose artistic practice entailed mailing sets of instructions to galleries on how to make a Sol LeWitt. I meditate on Joseph Beuys, who considered his idiosyncratic teachings themselves to be a work of art. Is Bob so very different? I make a mental note to follow up on this idea later. Possible monograph?
Friday night: Finis. What sits in front of me doesn’t look much like the painting in the book, but it’s . . . not awful? Especially if you kind of squint. Perhaps this is true measure of Bob’s genius: He knew that we couldn’t hit what he was asking us to aim for, but that what we did hit would still be . . . adequate.
Saturday: My exposure to “Painting With Bob Ross” has resulted in deep confusion; the project has paralyzed my brain. On one hand, there’s something rather charming in thinking of a mistake in a creative process as “a happy accident.” And I can see the appeal of Bob Ross’s everybody-welcome ethos to a generation racked by unforgiving hyper-competition.
But is there something soft and solipsistic about the current embrace of this figure? Finding this soapy New Age slop therapeutic, while simultaneously reserving the right to disown it as laughable kitsch, feels like classic millennial bet-hedging.
Or maybe not. Near the end of the book, Bob says there is nothing “more rewarding than being able to express yourself to others through painting.” Is this meant to be ironic? I’m pretty sure that my new painting expresses Bob Ross, rather than Mike Lindgren, but maybe that’s okay. Vincent van Gogh’s art had plenty of self-expression, after all, and look what happened to him.
Michael Lindgren is a writer and artist in Jersey City.
By Bob Ross Inc.
Walter Foster Publishing. 128 pp. Paperback, $21.99