Last year, we let you know that the first season of The Joy of Painting, the public-television paint-along show hosted by the neatly permed and persistently reassuring Bob Ross, had appeared free to watch online.
Produced by WNVC in Falls Church, Virginia, that season aired in 1983, and had some rough edges — the audible movements and murmurs of the crew in the background, the naturally improvisational Ross’ occasional stumble over one of his scripted lines — that would get thoroughly smoothed away as the program rapidly became an international TV institution, a process you can witness again for yourself now that the official Bob Ross Youtube channel has made available 20 more seasons free online.
“Bob Ross died in 1995 at 52 after a battle with lymphoma,” writes the New York Times‘ Foster Kamer, “but his cultural legacy has grown in his absence. He was around to witness the beginnings of his own cult status. In the early ’90s, he was big in Japan. And MTV, catering to the Gen X penchant for irony, ran a series of promotional advertisements that featured him.” Gen Xers across America would surely all have caught glimpses of Ross — and more importantly, heard a few of his mesmerizingly delivered words — during late-night or midday channel-surfing sessions, but now, thanks to the increasing availability of The Joy of Painting‘s archives on-demand and online, it’s made new fans even of those born after Ross had already departed.
The show always made it easy for its viewers to paint as they watched, with Ross always taking the time to run down the short list of required tools, making tirelessly sure to emphasize that under no circumstances should they buy nylon brushes or clean those brushes with turpentine. As the production values increased, so did the number of colors on the palette, though they never expanded too far beyond the core set, which The Joy of Painting die-hards can rattle off like a mantra, of Bright Red, Phthalo Blue, Midnight Black, Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Yellow, Van Dyke Brown, Titanium White, Sap Green — and, as Ross himself might say, the “almighty” canvas-covering Magic White, the foundation of the “wet-on-wet” technique he learned from mentor, and later bitter rival, Bill Alexander.
The New York Times article quotes Annette Kowalski, a onetime student of Ross who now helps run the Bob Ross, Inc. empire, on the host’s enduring appeal as a teacher: “If you listen closely to Bob’s programs, he never says ‘I’m going to teach you this. He never assumes that he knows more than you do. He says: ‘We’ll learn this together.’ And I think — even though people don’t realize it — I think that’s what his big turn-on is.” But it almost goes without saying that not everyone fascinated by the show, and maybe not even most people fascinated by the show, actually have any desire to paint themselves.
So why do they still tune in, on whatever platform they might tune in on, and in such large numbers? The key must have something to do with Ross’ oft-repeated reminders to his viewers that, when it comes to the landscapes on their own canvases, “this is your world, your creation,” and in your world, “there are no set, firm rules — you find what works for you, and that’s what you do.” On The Joy of Painting, Ross created a world, or perhaps a reality, of his own, one where “anybody can paint; all you need is a dream in your heart and a little practice,” where “there are no mistakes, just happy accidents” (plentifully inhabited, of course, by “happy little trees”), and one which many found they enjoyed living in, brush in hand or not, even if only for 26 minutes at a time.
We will continuing adding seasons to this list as they become available.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.