Review: “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed” Documents the Agony and the Ecstasy of “The Joy of Painting”

My first attempt at “Autumn Glory”

Jo Livingstone

A second attempt at “Autumn Glory”

Jo Livingstone

Ross offers something else: a totally peaceful and conflict-free vision of nature in a series of American pastoral images. In a Bob Ross painting, you are the gentle god of a world with no people in it, benevolent and skillful in your creations. Crucially, you and Bob are both in control. He speaks constantly on the show about being “the dictator” of the canvas, describing the scenes he paints as the “only place I’m really free.”

In the end, the joy of The Joy of Painting is in the act of following his instructions. What he teaches, essentially, is tricks and shortcuts: How to use a palette knife to apply paint in a way that replicates the effect of hundreds of tiny strokes; how to use objects like trees in the foreground to push back the scenes behind them. The process-based tutorial is now a huge genre, which millions of people participate in across the globe on YouTube and other social platforms. Seen in this light, the tutorial shift in culture, which transfers our attention from the final image to the process of creating the image (or dress, or makeup look, or drainage system, or whatever) makes Ross seem much more important than even his online cult status suggests.

When you master one of his little tricks, it does deliver an intense hit of satisfaction, a sense of an illusion pulled off. My Autumn Glory, unfortunately, is not quite there yet; I can’t seem to master the Ross effect of stippling leafy treetops onto wet paint. My paint has smeared where his is dappled, but the effect is quite nice, like a slightly blurred photocopy, and it’s not as if the original is much more creative. Along the way, I became irritated with Bob’s quick pace, then charmed by the gentle way that he predicted that frustration. Overall, the process of following his strict instructions is much more like writing an article for an assignment from an editor than taking a class: You cannot see how these little gestures are going to add up to anything, but if you trust the process it often works. I think my second attempt is marginally better than the first, so perhaps I did learn something.

Crucially, Bob Ross and YouTube tutorials sell a hobby, not a job; when you paint along to Bob Ross, or just watch him do it, it’s not work, but play—a kind of role-playing that relies on the fact that you’re almost certainly not a professional full-time painter if you’re actually painting along to the show. His tutorials, therefore, are like therapy sessions for the alienated and exhausted worker, whose labor is usually reserved for materially rewarding practices. The question of his own personal happiness as it related to his professional life feels almost beside the point; Bob Ross’s gift lay not in helping people make valuable art but in helping them find self-worth in their leisure time—not at work, and not through money, but in happy little worlds of one’s own creation.