The Bob Ross Effect: Literally Watching Paint Dry
When artists focus on process over product, their emotions soar.
Posted March 2, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Bob Ross provides a calming effect even for those who will never paint.
- Learning to accept the "happy little accidents" turns the lens away from product and focuses on the process.
- Well-meaning friends may push an artist to sell their work, but the process of making art pays back the maker by elevating their mood.
In the quiet evenings, after I’ve completed a long day of work, my 95-year-old mom and I often tune in to one of the hundreds of videos of Bob Ross’s Joy of Painting series.
In every video, in every session, Bob walks the viewer through the same steps.
First, he shows the canvas that he’s prepared with liquid white (or liquid black). Then he shows his paint palette as the names of the colors appear at the bottom of the screen. He dabs his two-inch paintbrush into cadmium yellow and mixes that with phthalo green and a touch of Prussian blue. He scrubs these colors into the center of his large Lucite palette and then turns to the canvas.
Without hesitation, he begins his painting process. The white canvas transforms into a landscape.
The previously orderly palette reveals the mixing process. In the final minutes of his 27-minute instructions, he boldly adds a one-inch wide vertical stripe of dark sienna or Vandyke brown. Or a small rectangle with a triangle on top. A few more dabs of titanium white, deftly mixed with midnight black, and suddenly those seemingly random shapes become a ponderous pine, an abandoned barn.
And then he’s done. Twenty-seven minutes. A dozen paint colors. His calm voice steps the viewer through the process.
But here’s a question: How many viewers ever pick up a paintbrush?
How many people actually create a landscape? Does it matter? “We need more stuff like this; we need more escapes and we need to have license so we can just tune out for a while and be happy. Why do we always have to look at art as morose? There’s enough misery in our lives” (Lederman, 2020).
Ross works both with and against this cultural moment. His calm manner is a perfect antidote to the frenetic woo of social media.
“It’s the perfect antidote for all the crap that’s going on in the world,” Paul Crawford, curator at The Penticton Art Gallery in British Columbia, said. “And if Bob Ross is ‘the cannabis of the art world’—the gateway drug to something more obscure—that’s great, too” (Lederman, 2020).
I enjoy watching Ross with my mom because she, too, is an artist. She’s not fast like Bob, but she’s prolific. Recently, my husband hung nearly 30 paintings that had ringed the perimeter of her living room for the past 20 years. Her walls now look like a gallery. Two and three framed paintings arranged vertically around the living room. Finally, we can enjoy the product of her decades of painting.
Did the product ever really matter?
When I was a kid, my mom was a sign painter. She and my dad owned their own business. Her work was professional and precise. Her handiwork still graces a few businesses in our area, having lasted nearly 45 years since her final years in commercial art. (Her career ended the day my father died of a heart attack in the shop where they had made signs for 25 years.)
Most of the fine artists that we know and love painted and sold their work. Frank Benson, John Singer Sargent, and Mary Cassatt all worked during the impressionist era of American art and enjoyed quite a bit of financial success. Today, as art has evolved, a myriad of artists have amassed empires from their work. Thomas Kincaid, Laurel Burch, and Takashi Murakami come to mind. Many of these artists benefit more from the reproductions of their art on calendars, dinnerware, and prints that can be ordered in a size appropriate for your décor.
But what of those artists who do not enjoy financial success during their lifetime? Van Gogh perhaps represents that most tragic example of this anomaly as his work continues to garner a profit for its owners, who capitalize on the physical work only to resell to another stakeholder for a handsome return on investment.
Would Van Gogh have been more successful today as a PBS show host? Imagine the kerfuffle when he sliced off his ear! Would the studio have to be rearranged so that his remaining ear now faced the camera lens?
What was his process? Could Vincent pump out a new painting in a half hour?
Why do we make art? Is it for profit? To make a product? Or to enjoy the process?
I write, and I write, and I write. And mostly, that’s where the words remain. Just a digital file on my laptop’s hard drive. A couple of my stories and essays have been published in journals. But I would starve if I relied on the sales of my stories for income.
Does compensation matter?
“As part of this process of enjoying creativity in everyday life, the creator may stumble upon the domain for which he or she feels an initial pull of passion” (Kaufman, 2016). Writing provides that grounding gravity for me.
I have a theory that the best artists, writers, poets, songwriters, potters, gardeners, chefs, and carpenters will never reap the accolades of commercial success.
We love the process, perhaps more than the product.
“In a sense, Ross works both with and against this cultural moment. His calm manner is a perfect antidote to the frenetic woo of social media—art amid the art-directed—even as his short inspirational messages fit neatly within it” (Zeitchik, 2021).
Bob Ross’s team knew this to be true. We watch his shows for their meditative quality. His soft voice, his gentle tone, his willingness to accept the “happy accidents” inspire us through their calm tone.
Creativity does not have to be reserved for those with successful Etsy studios. The process will elevate your mood. And your home will bloom with your creations.
Lederman, M. (2020, September 1). The enduring magic of Bob Ross. Globe & Mail [Toronto, Canada], A12.
Kaufman, J. (2016). Creativity 101: Vol. Second edition. Springer Publishing Company.
Zeitchik, S. (2021, July 30). How the long-dead public-television painter Bob Ross became a streaming phenomenon. Washington Post.