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Bob Ross's rivalry with his mentor, Bill Alexander: “He betrayed me!”
So here’s something you don’t hear about a lot — Bob Ross, the famous afro-ed host of The Joy Of Painting, was taught his famous “wet on wet” fast painting technique by a German expatriate painter named Bill Alexander, who, believe it or not, had his own PBS painting show called The Magic of Oil Painting, that ran from 1974-1982. (The show, like The Joy Of Painting, was basically an advertisement for his painting supply business, Alexander Art.) Here’s a clip of Alexander painting:
Look familiar? When Bob Ross was a young military man stationed in Alaska, he was constantly searching for an art teacher who could actually teach him to paint:
"The schools I went to, the professors were mostly into abstract — talking all about color theory and composition," he said. "They’d tell you what makes a tree, but they wouldn’t tell you how to paint a tree."
When he finally took a class from Bill Alexander, everything clicked:
"I took one class and I went crazy," he said. "I knew this was what I wanted to do." Mr. Ross eventually set up his own traveling art school in Florida.
"The Joy of Painting" started airing on PBS in 1983. Alexander even passed the torch to his former student:
At the beginning of The Joy of Painting’s second season in 1984, Ross dedicated the show to Alexander, who filmed a promo for his former student: “I hand off my mighty brush to a mighty man, and that is Bob Ross. In 1987 someone from Alexander Art told Ross that they could not keep up with the demand generated by the The Joy of Painting and suggested that Ross start his own line of art supplies.
And then, after Ross became “a $15 million industry of how-to books, videos and, most of all, Bob Ross art supplies” something between the two changed. In this 1991 NYTimes profile, Ross declines to mention his painting teacher, because “Now he is our major competitor.”
Alexander said he felt betrayed:
[Alexander] spoke of his former protege in the tones Thomas Couture might have used to describe the young pupil who outstripped him, Edouard Manet. “He betrayed me,” he said in his strong German accent. “I invented ‘wet on wet.’ I trained him and he is copying me — what bothers me is not just that he betrayed me, but that he thinks he can do it better.”
(For the record, Alexander didn’t “invent” wet-on-wet, or alla prima — Jan van Eyck, van Gogh, and Monet beg to differ.)
What fascinates me isn’t the aesthetic qualities of the two or whether Ross was a copycat or not — the art seems pretty mix and match to me, and their business models are almost identical. What’s interesting to me is why Ross was the more successful, or more heralded of the two.
The answer lies in showmanship.
Contrast the two: both present an easy, “happy” kind of painting — art as a type of therapy — but their personalities and delivery are very different: Alexander is passionate, fiery, referring to “un mighty brush!” and Ross is folksy, laid back, with a hippie ‘fro (which he originally had permed to save on haircuts but then had to keep because it was his trademark). Alexander is, in other words, European, and Ross is American.
But maybe more importantly, Ross and the PBS station managers knew very well that “The Joy Of Painting” wasn’t really much about the painting at all.
Ross’s expanding circle of viewers are, for the most part, not even painting, nor do they have any plans to start. They watch because “The Joy of Painting” is the most relaxing show on television. It is unfailingly simple, a three-camera production with a black background and, at Ross’s insistence, no edits. Ross wears the same thing every time — blue jeans and a John Henry shirt — and in 26 minutes not only completes a painting but also, in his lullaby voice, murmurs familiar Bob-isms like “happy little trees” and “what the heck, let’s give him a little friend over here” and “there are no mistakes, only happy accidents.” As the Ross fan Matt Lauer once admitted to Rosie O’Donnell, it’s hard not to slip into “a little Bob Ross coma,” so entrancing is the show.
"It’s funny to talk to these people," said Joan Kowalski, the media director of Bob Ross Inc. and Walt’s daughter. "Because they think they’re the only ones who watch to take a nap. Bob knew about this. People would come up to him and say, `I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you’ve been putting me to sleep for 10 years.’ He’d love it."
"There are people who just like to hear him talk," one station manager said. "We even get letters from blind people who say they tune in because he gives them hope."
In other words: It ain’t what you paint, it’s how you paint it.
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