If you’ve been around for the last twenty years, you know about Bob Ross.
I always remember seeing his show on TV when I was kid, I always thought it was very soothing. The few episodes that I did get to see always amazed me how. He could turn what appeared to be mistakes into beautiful landscapes with just a few techniques, and I remember thinking, “So that’s what real painting is, huh? Looks fun.” Granted, I knew nothing about acrylic vs. oil or anything about art school or actually learning traditional painting. I only knew what I saw on TV.
Despite that, I never really got to watch that much of the show, even though it interested me. Pre-Internet age, there was no way to pull it up to watch it on my own. Fast forward twenty years, and suddenly the late Mr. Ross has gotten a pop-culture boost. More of his episodes began to show on YouTube, and the streaming website, Twitch, ran a week long marathon of all of the seasons back to back for all of the Internet to watch together. It was an amazing success, and really drove home how powerful his message was.
Everyone can paint.
All you have to do is do it.
After watching some of the episodes online, I finally put my foot down. For Christmas this year, I asked for one of his painting sets so I could see if I really could do it. Sure enough, Christmas came around and my mother-in-law got me one of his brush and paint sets along with a few small canvases to try my hand.
It’s not the most comprehensive set, but it does have most of the things seen in the show. You have a two and one inch brush, a fan and detail brush, and a paint knife. It all comes in a nice carrying case with a wooden palette and seven colors(including the Liquid White) to start with: alizerin Crimson, permanent red, Pthaelo blue, sap green, cadmium yellow, black, and titanium white. She also got me the easel, which wasn’t included in the set. I’ve done a few pieces now, and for any who would like to follow in his footsteps, I might be able to provide some helpful hints to get you painting.
To start, you’re going to need some odorless paint thinner. It’s not something that comes with the set, which I found odd, since he uses that specifically to clean his brushes in all of his episodes. Don’t use soap and water, apparently it will fray the natural hair brushes that come with the set. I would recommend getting it from your local craft or paint supply store. There are paint thinners you can buy from home improvement stores, but they tend of be for bigger projects like walls and other large scale painting and it’s a little too strong for the delicate brushes. Make sure it’s odorless, just like he says, otherwise you’ll fume out your house with a nice turpentine smell that will take days to air out.
While you’re at the craft store, I would also recommend picking up a brush bath along with a new palette, maybe one that’s plastic and flat. You’ll need something to put the paint thinner in, and at first, I thought maybe a Tupperware I didn’t plan on using would be fine. It worked, but I can never use that Tupperware again, the paint thinner does clean the paint, but after painting a whole thing it stains whatever container it’s been sitting in. That, and the brush baths usually have something at the bottom to stroke the bristles on to help clean the brush. Otherwise, I would recommend taking advice straight from the man himself by getting an old coffee can and putting some mesh near the bottom, leaving about two inches between the bottom of the can and the mesh. I had no idea how to engineer such an advanced device (I failed shop class in middle school) so I just bought a brush bath that works fairly well. The brushes are a little stained with color, but they do what they’re supposed to.
I also suggest a plastic palette, preferably one that’s flat. You’re going to be mixing a very thick paint, and although the wood worked fine the first time, what I only realized after was that you can’t clean untreated wood with water. Once I was finished, there wasn’t going to be a way to get the paint out of the wood without ruining the palette with water, which meant that I now had a nice wooden mural in the impressionist style. With a plastic palette, you’ll probably stain it, but it can be cleaned without ruining it.
Now to get setup. Take a counter or a table top that you can spread out on and lay everything out. You can obviously hold the palette if you want, like Ross on the show, but since I didn’t have an expensive easel that held the canvas, I needed another hand to sometimes steady the back of it while I was trying to paint. I ended up leaving the palette down on the table, but it worked just fine for me. Fill up your container with a generous amount of thinner and get a lot of paper towels. I would suggest buying a whole new roll or a pack, you go through a lot of paper towels. The technique that Ross used to clean the brush, where he beats it against the side of the easel is fun, but it makes a lot of splatter. I just ended up drying it quickly with some paper towel, first running a few strokes over it to get the thinner mostly out before taking the towel and running over the brush by hand to make sure the rest of it is mostly out. If you can’t get it all out, it’s not a big deal, but in order to keep the paint thick on the canvas, just get as much as you can. You can lay down whatever you need to on the floor; I never needed to but it would be one more layer of protection from a spill. A ripped trash bag or some old towels would probably work. Also put on some old clothes, something you don’t mind getting some paint on. It’s more messy than you think.
We’re almost ready to start. The kit came with some paper instructions about making your first painting, with a mountain and all. They’re good instructions, and you could definitely paint something with them, but I wanted the full 1980s experience, so I pulled up an episode on my iPad and painted along with him.
Now we’re ready to start. The first thing you need to do is add the Liquid White to the canvas. The Liquid White isn’t like the other oil paints, it’s a lot thinner, more watery. Shake before using and put it into another container. I just used a Tupperware for this one but if you bought another container than that works too. The technique he’s using is wet-on-wet, meaning you’re not waiting for the paint to dry fully before putting on the next layer. Instead, you paint all of the layers together, and the wet canvas allows the paint to blend together naturally. The canvases that he uses are larger, over 20×20. My canvases weren’t as big, so using the big 2″ brush sometimes took up too much space. If you have a larger canvas, you can follow along exactly, but for me, whenever he was using the 2″ brush, I was using the 1″.
With whichever of the brushes you decide, take some of the Liquid White and add it to the canvas with long strokes. Cover the whole canvas unless he tells you otherwise (I would recommend watching the episode you want to copy first to see if you have all of the colors and that he’s using some simple techniques to start with. Something with a mountain is a great place to start). Once you’ve covered the canvas, I would clean the brush off once and run over the canvas again, or take the knife and shave off some of the excess before running over everything with a brush again. I made the mistake of making the canvas TOO wet the first time, and it made some of the colors bleed together rather than blend
Ross usually puts out the paints before he starts the episode to make things faster, and you can tell that he uses a lot of paint. The tubes of color that you get are pretty small and I wanted to make the most of them before I had to buy more (oils can be a little expensive depending on the color, like $7 at least for most of the colors. I picked up the colors I was missing later). Instead, I waited for him to say exactly what color he was using for what part before just laying a little out on the palette and working with that. The paint you’re using is oil, so it’s thick and heavy. It should look a lot like toothpaste and sit about an inch off the palette.
After that, it’s time to go to work.
As I said, I followed along with an episode, one that involved some mountains so I could get the real experience, and one that I knew used the most basic colors. I’m not sure how someone just learning would have been able to follow along with an episode on TV, I had to keep pausing throughout to try and get my technique right. I ended up watching a little ahead, pausing to copy what he had done before starting back into it and watching a little more.
Unsurprisingly, he seems to know what he’s talking about. I managed to follow along fairly closely, making some water lines and trees with some reflections. I did run into a problem with clouds, like I said my paint was too wet the first time and it didn’t stick to the canvas very well. The big issue I had was putting in the mountains. Ross instructs you to press hard with the knife when you’re putting in mountains, you want them to really stick to the canvas so you can layer over the top. When I pressed hard, all I did was scrape the sky off of the canvas. Maybe I was pushing too hard, or what he was saying might have been relative. The technique I ended up using was a much softer touch, that left a lot of paint down. Then I used the same technique to put the snow on top, and it didn’t turn out half bad. The only other thing I would say is not to over mix the paint when you’re combining them into a different color. When you use the knife to mix, it’s easy to get hypnotized and just keep turning the paint over and over, I totally admit that it’s fun to play with. But you only want to mix a little bit, like the man says, you want the paint to marble, for both colors to still be visible in the paint. It makes the final product look a lot more real and colorful, rather than just spreading around different shades of brown and blue.
And there you have it. It’s not perfect, but if we’re being honest, I’m really proud of it. Since that first one, I’ve painted another three. One wasn’t my favorite but I really like the other two, and I plan to do more. Clean up takes some time but it isn’t hard. For your palette, I recommend taking a paper towel and dipping it into the thinner and using that to wipe it down first in a sink (Hopefully stainless steel or somewhere the paint won’t stick). When you loosen up the paint there, then rinse it with some water and most of it should come off. Clean the brushes thoroughly with thinner and dry them, still not using water or soap. Wipe down your area for splatter and put everything away. I was surprised how long it took the canvas to dry, the Liquid White can stay wet for a few days or up to a week depending on where you put it. I recommend putting it outside, somewhere dry where it gets some sun to speed things along. I didn’t notice any fading on the paint, but when I kept the first one up in the top shelf of my closet so the cats couldn’t get to it, it took over a week to finally be dry enough to touch, and even then I still got some paint on my hands.
There were a few challenges, but I really did enjoy the process. Not just the painting, but the setting everything up and then cleaning up afterward. My clothes got a little paint stained, but I thought they got some character. I had stains on my hands for days, but it made me feel like I had made something. I always liked the idea of dirty hands, sometimes it’s fun to be messy (If the clean up is easy). The whole process is very zen, and the painting really helps calm and relax from a stressful day. What’s more, you really can create something beautiful. I had no expectations going into this, but I was surprised at how great it looked afterward.
If you set your mind to something and pursue it, much like this blog, you can surprise yourself with skills you weren’t even sure you had. I wasn’t sure before, but I’m definitely a believer now. Just like the man says…
Everyone can paint.