What to buy a wannabe painter

Tuesday 14th November, 2023

Bob Ross was a fraud.

Yes, I'm talking about the "happy little trees" guy. Everything about him is a lie from his calm, positive demeanor, his enthusiasm to teach, and even his iconic afro. Okay, there's no way for me to know if he actually enjoyed teaching, but you get my drift.

I'm reminded of his deception every time I see his painting kits placed strategically on the islands and end caps of craft stores alongside other mass-produced "art supplies."

"Art supplies" is in quotes on purpose here.

If you're purchasing one of those no-name kits for the aspiring artist in your life, you're setting them up for failure. I know, I know, failure is a strong word, but I speak from experience. Eight-year-old me was truly convinced I couldn't use colored pencils because a well-meaning grandma bought me one of those.

As a kid, your first instinct is "Oh, I guess I suck at this," not "Aunt Margaret is cheap and bought something in a panic."

But back to Bob Ross, we're not letting him weasel out of this unnoticed…

Do you guys remember that Bob Ross era? Millennials were buying socks with his face, and more importantly, his fro, on them along with shirts that bore his face and said something like "No mistakes, just happy accidents"?

We clung to Bob Ross with our childhood nostalgia as if he were a second-tier Mr. Rogers.

There's no dirt on Mr. Rogers - not that we know of at least - but Bob Ross has some explaining to do.

When we think of Bob Ross, we think of the afro, the wet-on-wet paint technique, his chill demeanor, and his positive reassurance to the viewers of his PBS show. We remember him reminding us that anyone can paint and that there is a beautiful side to life in nature and creativity.

Well, someone else did all of that first. Yes, down to the life advice, and on the same network no less.

Bill Alexander, A German World War 2 refugee, had a show on PBS called The Magic of Oil Painting. He addressed the viewer with enthusiastic optimism, assuring that anyone can paint, and taught the wet-on-wet technique, claiming to be the creator of the style.

Let's be real though, Bill Alexander didn't invent it, but he did bring it back from the 16th century and put his own spin on it.

While he might not have directly referred to trees as "happy little trees," he did lovingly discuss "the happiness" found within them.

And the mountains.

And the landscapes.

The dude truly loved nature.

Bill was a more authentic version of what we know Bob Ross to be, excluding the afro (which we'll get to that in a moment).

Now, this wasn't a situation where some guy (Ross) decides just straight up to copy someone he saw on TV.

Okay, he did see him on TV first, but it's a bit more complicated than that.

After getting excited about Alexander's technique and mastering it, Ross sought out Alexander, studied under him, and even became a traveling salesman for Alexander's art supply company.

When Alexander retired, he asked Ross to teach his traveling classes. Over time Ross decided to branch out on his own, motivated by two students who later became business partners and funded Ross's individual brand.

Bob Ross's show The Joy of Painting aired a year after the end of Bill Alexander's The Magic of Oil Painting. Ross made little mention of Alexander until season 2 where he credited Bill for his influence.

Season 2? Suspicious.

If you watch any videos of Bill's old show, the similarities are uncanny. It's as if his personality has been copied and modified, or at the very least, his vibe. Bill's optimism may be a bit more emphatic and loud than Bob's, but has an unmistakable authenticity to it. He seems to be an enthusiastic guy hell-bent on teaching people to paint. And the more you learn and read about Bob Ross, the more it becomes clear that the calm optimism was a branding choice.

And now to the afro… You've been in suspense long enough.

Bob Ross didn't want to keep the afro. He originally got the hairstyle to avoid paying for haircuts while teaching Alexander's touring art classes. Ross's new students/business partners created a logo using his likeness, locking him into the iconic look, much to Bob Ross's dismay.

You could say it was sort of a Guy Fieri situation. A bad hairdo catches the public's attention, creating almost a brand within itself, thereby trapping the wearer into a bad hairdo existence.

With that said, it is difficult to determine where the line between influence and copying lies. After all, all art is influenced by the art before it, and at what point are you stealing from your influencer?

As time goes by those lines become blurrier and blurrier, but that's not relevant right now. You can't steal art without the tools to recreate it, right? The aspiring painter in your life is going to need the right tools.

A general suggestion parroted amongst average and pro painters is to start with student-grade supplies. These will cost a bit more, and be less visually impressive than the $20 briefcases of basically worthless supplies at your local craft store, but they'll give the user a real chance to see if painting is right for them - usually a few paints, a few brushes, and paper or canvas to use them on. It will require some research to determine what that should look like but takes just as long as wandering through a craft store until something catches your eye.

You're probably assuming that this is the part where I remind you not to buy Bob Ross stuff, but Bob Ross's drama runs deep. The money from those socks with his face you bought in 2017 goes to Ross's business partners, not his family who have sued to obtain rights to his likeness. There's a whole ass Netflix documentary about it.

There's drama in the art world. It just doesn't make the headlines like Solange attacking Jay-Z in the elevator, or Britney Spears dropping bombs about Justin Timberlake in her recent memoir.

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It's free
always has been, always will be