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DETROIT — A lot of folks, if pressed, could probably come up with some kind of association with the name Bob Ross. If reminded that the Florida native was the host of a long-running instructional painting show on public television, The Joy of Painting, most people could recall Ross’s voluminous perm, soft-spoken demeanor, or tendency to characterize landscape elements as “happy little trees,” for example. Whether or not one considers his output to be art of the highest caliber, it is unquestionable that Ross demonstrated a sincere love of landscape painting, and an uncanny knack for developing techniques that conveyed the ability to paint to people who would have otherwise never considered picking up a brush. The show originally ran from 1983 to 1994, and though Ross passed away in the following year, reruns of the show continue to air to this day.
But beyond the rough outlines of Ross’s peaks — what the man himself might consider “step one” to creating some “graceful mountains” — far fewer folks possess some kind of studied insight into Ross’s oeuvre and methodology. That’s why, when asked to review Painting with Bob Ross, a forthcoming publication from Walter Foster Publications (an imprint of the Quarto Group), that attempts to parlay Ross’s televised instructions into book form, I knew I needed to call up on some subject matter experts. I turned to a pair of artists, Henry James Haver Crissman and Hamilton Poe, whose longstanding and ongoing collaborative work, “Self-Titled,” took a turn for Bob Ross back in 2016. This movement of the larger work, “Self-Titled 2: (954)785-8492.5,” included a pilgrimage, of sorts, to the Bob Ross Institute in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, where they were formally trained in seascape painting. As recently as this summer, the pair was revisiting their Bob Ross training, with a marathon seascape painting performance and installation at Trinosophes, which has served as longtime sponsor to Poe-Crissman collaborative antics.
I wondered what these veterans of the Bob Ross school thought about the new publication, which features 16 landscape paintings, with step-by step instructions and full-color photographs designed to “inspire painters and Bob Ross fans of all ages and skill levels,” according to its promotional materials.
“Painting with Bob Ross covers the nuances of Bob’s Alla Prima technique with the same step-by-step exacting detail that is taught at the Bob Ross Institute, and if followed along as per the instructions, your works may well be indistinguishable from Bob’s,” wrote Poe, in a collectively penned statement generated via email interview with the pair. “However, when painting along with Bob Ross in real time, as is suggested with his TV show, The Joy of Painting, we found that it is near impossible to keep up with his pace in his 27-minute long episodes, but that the futility of attempting to do so, paired with Bob’s incessant encouragement, gave us confidence and a starting place for compelling improvisations that emerged in the process.”
Still, it seems difficult to imagine that Bob Ross’s signature approach to painting is nearly so charming without the presence of the man himself.
“As Painting with Bob Ross removes time from the equation, it does indeed reveal many of Bob’s unspoken secrets, and makes painting with Bob’s method and style more accessible,” wrote Poe, on behalf of the duo, “but we fear that the opportunities for self realization and acceptance that are embedded in the TV show format could well be lost in unconstrained efforts to recreate Bob’s masterpieces verbatim.”
Having experienced both approaches, Poe and Crissman feel they struck a happy medium (or “happy little medium,” as Ross might have said) in their most recent performance/exhibition, in which they painted along with all 33 Joy of Painting seascape episodes, while streaming them over a poor internet connection.
“This both slowed his pace, and offered a variety of additional images that we could choose to incorporate into our paintings, as the video would freeze not only on images of the paintings, but also on images of his pallet, of Bob himself, and even once on him petting a fawn,” wrote Poe.
Both Crissman and Poe emit a spirit of unflagging optimism, which may make them viable stand-ins for Ross, and the weeklong active portion of the Trinosophes exhibition, ‘The Alla Prima Institute’ and/or ‘Alla Prima All ’a Time’, involved many lively conversations with visitors of all ages, some of whom also chose to drop-in on the painting sessions. The results, on display at Trino through August 12, do not closely resemble the attempted realism of Ross’s finished works, but perhaps this reflects Crissman and Poe’s interest in alla prima as a conceptual framework, more than a strict technical guideline — not to mention their habit of attempting these seascapes atop pre-existing, discarded paintings. On that last point, Poe writes, “economical, and ensured that our paint would not move in a way even remotely similar to Bob’s on his ‘Liquid White’ lathered canvases, serving to further interrupt any notion that the value of our works may be tied to the accuracy of our reproductions.”
This was not intended as a slight of the master, of course.
“This isn’t to say that we don’t value his technique,” Poe clarified. “But that we see Bob’s catch phrase, ‘we don’t make mistakes, only happy accidents’ not as a justification for mediocrity, but rather a call for optimism, empowerment, and artistry in the face of the extraordinarily complex reality that is being a person today.
“If you want a book about how to replicate Bob’s paintings, by all means, please buy this book, but please also consider that your paintings may well be perfect regardless,” Poe concludes.
‘The Alla Prima Institute’ and/or ‘Alla Prima All ’a Time’ continues on display at Trinosophes (1464 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit, MI) through August 12. Painting with Bob Ross will be available for purchase wherever books are sold on October 9, with pre-order links accessible here.