Seeing Beyond Bob Ross

Let me start by fully acknowledging the debt of gratitude the recreational art world owes Mr. “Happy Trees” Bob Ross. He got people painting who never would have dared pick up a brush on the best of days. Why? Because he made art technique accessible. He deciphered the complex with “light-bulb” art moments and gave aspiring painters…wait for it…a formula. Aah yes! The notorious painting “formula”, heralded by hobby “fun” artists as genius and scorned by the high brow “fine art” snobs as cliché and misleading.

Fun Art vs Fine Art

Bob understood that art technique that was entertaining, easy to digest and accessible to the masses absolutely had to be dispensed in a formulaic way. Its the secret to his success. His simple formulas for painting clouds, mountains, trees, shrubs and water, launched many beginners past the early, likely-to-give-up, frustration stages, landing them gently on the garden path of enjoyment. Fun art, yippee! And for many recreational artists, this is more than good enough. So be it. And why not? Art can be fun at all levels not to mention very satisfying and therapeutic. However, for the artist determined to journey on in their development, and there are many, the inevitable question becomes, “what next?” At this level, the art snobs are right. Mr. Ross can only open the door and teach you baby steps. For the more serious student, Bob’s lessons can be a bit misleading by treating subjects as generic rather than striving for a unique artistic vision.

The Fork in the Road

When I started my YouTube channel, I never expected to find the high level of formulaic indoctrination that art instructors like Bob Ross would leave behind. Artists like Terry Madden did the same for watercolorists, in my opinion, reinforcing the idea that all levels of art development can be had through clever, but simple tricks, hacks and formulas. BUNK! It just isn’t the case! The artist who may have mastered all of Mr. Ross’ techniques, for example, soon discovers the fork in the road with one path moving forward and the other looping back on itself like a cul de sac.

Art as a Journey NOT a Destination

Ask any accomplished artist (painter, photographer, actor, musician, etc.) how they did it and most answers will boil down to one thing primarily – embarking on a journey of self instruction and discovery. A serious art student never stops being inspired and learning from other great artists, but eventually they begin to learn things that are unique to them and cannot necessarily be taught by other artists, first mastering their medium, then finding their own sight and making discoveries on their own. Generic formulas fail in such cases. Many formal art schools recognize this and cut to the chase by forcing students to rise in their artistic development through practice, some critique and self reflection. Sadly this often does not entirely work either, especially for teaching them how to master the medium. The answer, for an artist seeking to go farther, lies somewhere in between technical formula and individual artistic vision.

The Formula for All Things Art

Bob Ross was a genius for sure, but only because he discovered those simple formulas, and then, for the enjoyment of others, sacrificially sought to teach the masses in order to get a brush in their hand. His goal was not to create great art but to create joy through learning the process of painting. Who am I to argue. So what am I saying after all these words? Art development starts that way, by learning techniques, processes and yes, a few tricks and formulas. Granted, it can happily remain there for many, but eventually, for those who wish to move higher, one must look beyond the generic tree, cloud or mountain. Art development becomes a journey of improving vision and perception. Its a process of discovering how to look, see and express that sight through a shape, a color, a composition, a subject, or a harmonious relationship that you never noticed before. Artistic seeing isn’t instantly learned. Its progressive and ongoing. Formulas are artistically blind. Seeing requires more intent looking and looking improves when the vision is repeatedly expressed as art. Though not an easy formula to define, THIS is the next step – look, see, express, take a fresh look, repeat. If I could leave behind as a legacy a formula that artists would follow, this would be it. I still feel like I’m in the beginning stages of this step myself, but oh what a ride! The developmental dividends are huge, and for me, thats as fun as any “fun” art anyone else every invented.