Friday, August 3, 2012

Of Bob Ross and Bill Alexander

I'm sure you've seen this video by now, but if not, go ahead and check it out.

What can I say about Bob Ross? Some people hate him, some love him, others love him ironically. I, myself, have mixed feelings about the guy, but most of those feelings are positive. Bob Ross will always remind me of being a kid, sitting in front of the television with my father and the dog. If during our weekend channel surfing we spotted "The Joy of Painting," we'd invariably get sucked in and before we knew it a half hour had gone by.

Though much of my interest in watching Bob Ross' show had to do with the fact that I wanted to pursue the arts, it was just as much to do with the fact that it was easily the most relaxing television program there was at the time. Bob's soothing voice spewed nothing but encouragement and positivity. In fact, it could be said that his show was just as much about motivational speaking as it was about painting, and for me it provided a bit of hope that I could one day live the dream

Bob Ross' mentor, William Alexander, also had a painting show called "The Magic of Oil Painting." Alexander was a German ex-pat who had a gruffer presence and was basically the Emperor Palpatine to Ross' Darth Vader. He hunched before his canvas like some disgruntled bear and he created an atmosphere of enthusiastic tension. While both men spoke of "happy trees" living in their paintings, Alexander would occasionally bust out a "mighty tree" which he would announce with giddy exclamations as it was birthed into his world, and extoll the god-like power one wielded as a painter.

While the premise of both shows was to teach and demonstrate, they were just as much commercial vehicles for both men to sell their art supplies. Still, I remember being pretty transfixed, and while I retained some of what they demonstrated, the truth is that I learned little about the painter I would one day hope to be.

Ross and Alexander were wet on wet guys, which is to say that they just kept piling paint onto the canvas without letting any of it dry until the painting was done. Each had a half hour show (Ross' done without any edits), and there was no point in the show where they pulled the fully realized piece from the oven as was so often done in many of the comparable cooking shows. Their work really did come into existence right before the viewer's eyes.

The ease at which they demonstrated their formula belied the years of experience (and what I assume were hundreds of failed works) behind it all. To the few who actually attempted to paint along with the show, I'm sure this was a source of constant frustration, though I'm almost positive that there's at least one painting hanging framed on a wall somewhere done while devotedly following each step in front of the television (let's just hope they remembered to sign their own name rather than that of the host).

Sadly, as many of you know, both of these men have long since passed. But their teachings, respective schools, and happy little trees live on. And in retrospect, there are several things that amaze me. The first thing is that there was a time when there were entire television series about art. I don't think such a thing would fly nowadays. Not enough tension or violence. The subject of the paintings might have both, but the drama's in the doing not the finished product, and there's only so much manufactured conflict that can be crammed into a painting (oh no, I dropped my brush AGAIN). The second thing that amazes me is that these guys demonstrated both their hits and their misses. The quality of their output could vary wildly and both have episodes that resulted in sub-par work (that is assuming you believe they had below par work to begin with). Whether or not the vast majority of their audience appreciated this fact is unknown to me, but I'm sure at least a few recognized it (probably the person with their own framed piece on the wall, at least). Lastly, I'm amazed that both men were ostensibly doing landscapes, but were really doing fantasy work.

That's right. They were doing fantasy work. A very mild form, but fantasy nonetheless. Sure, there were far fewer dragons and goblins than people are used to seeing in such work, but make no mistake, they were fantasy painters. Why? The landscapes in their work simply didn't exist. Sure William Alexander would take his show outdoors from time to time, but he wasn't painting what he saw before him, he was painting what was in his head. Bob Ross did his work in a closed studio with a black backdrop. These guys weren't painting the world they lived in, they were building a new world from whole cloth a half hour at a time. It was an idealized world, a dream world, and for them and many of their viewers, a utopia. What's that if not a fantasy?

What they were doing wasn't a whole lot different from those occasions when I've been asked to do a fantasy landscape. I just tended to take it a step further. Mine had more metal bits or defied gravity more than theirs might, and I let my paint dry more than they did before reworking an area. But if you look at the landscape portions of a lot of fantasy paintings, you'll see scenery that's not unlike what you see in virtually every Bob Ross and Bill Alexander painting ever made.

All that being said, however, I can't say I'm a fan of either of their work. It just doesn't do it for me. I get the appeal, but I'm not their audience.

What I am a fan of is what they set out to do. They engaged people with art, and tried to make it a part of their audiences' life — even if only in some small way. They preached painting as a source of joy and peace, and I was listening. Sure I never really liked any of the specifics that they were working at, but I liked a lot of the big ideas. While they whiled away building their dream worlds, they inadvertently helped me build my own: a world where I got to paint all day. Whether they knew it or not, they were selling their craft to a little boy in Pennsylvania who sat rapt on a couch with his Dad and a miniature schnauzer called Danny.


  1. Bill did his painting in 30 minutes like Bob did. There were no edits unless Bill had other guest artists on.

  2. Thanks for the memories! I was really big into watching Bill in the 80s. One summer when I was sick and housebound I watched and attempted the 'wet on wet' technique. It actually worked! I painted a mountain with a reflection in the water and trees. I never would have imagined I could do that--but, as you said, Steven, these guys really MOTIVATED the viewers!

  3. excellent writing. appreciate your generous's true.

  4. I absolutely loved both of them!

  5. where can I buy a william alexander painting

  6. If your focus was you and the effect one or both of these painters had on you, then delving deeper into your own bio would have provided more context. If your focus was on these two painters, their accomplishments, and their relationship with one another, more research was necessary to do that tale justice. I felt you didn't tell either story. I was craving more.

    1. Fair points, I guess. Unfortunately, I'm not a biographer, only have so much time to dedicate to the blog (I'm usually painting), and really wasn't shooting for depth. I think I presented what feelings I have for both men clearly and succinctly. My admiration for the effect on their audience is there for all to read, as is my lack of interest in their work beyond that. Additional biological information wouldn't have added anything to either facet. It would have just been more.

      Either way, I'm sorry to disappoint. Perhaps in the future someone will write a biography about one or both men and you can quench your thirst for more information.

  7. Wow thank you for your beautifully written and very honest perspective, and for not bashing but rather appreciating art....your thing or not. That's an advanced soul.

  8. I meant that to you Steve, not the critics, sorry I didn't clarify. I really appreciated your article and look forward to more.

  9. Bill was the genuine original, Bob was just a copycat hack.

  10. All of us artists are copycats on some level - we just add our own flavours


I welcome all comments, questions, and discussion so long as you keep it civil.