Bob Ross: An Art Conversation

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Maybe a little different, but this is a topic I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for, oh, about 8 years.

For those of you who don’t know, I studied a mish-mash of Graphic Design/ Illustration/ Fine Art etc etc since I was about 14 years old. I’m not studying now, nor do I intend to focus on art if I study in future.

Before I moved to Tbilisi (so just over a year ago now) I did one year of Illustration and Visual Communication at university in London. Don’t get me wrong, but it was kind of easy for me as I already understood what to say to get marks from my Foundation Diploma the year before.

The important thing isn’t what I studied when or how I did, but more how this has impacted me mentally. At the risk of sounding like some kind of melodramatic ‘art-type’, studying art made it very difficult for me to actually create art.

All I did during my childhood was draw, paint and try my best to recreate Cinderella as true-to-life as possible without tracing. I drew so much that my middle finger on my right hand has a lump on it thanks to how I hold my pencils. It was my thing and I loved it. I’d spend hours hunched over my pictures, engulfed in another world that I could never truly distance myself from once my picture was done.

As I was expected to narrow-down my lesson choices at school, I chose Art and Graphics to go alongside more academic subjects like English Literature and French. I continued to narrow-down until college where I was faced with the choice of Fine Art or Graphic Design. I chose Graphic Design in the end as I was eager to learn more skills and to be able to practically use art in my future career.

I don’t regret this decision but it did highlight something I’ve been conflicted about since. For me, Fine Art was more experimental, traditional and conceptual than Graphic Design. Graphics was much more advertising-focused with touches on what you could call the more scientific side of art that include scary things like graphs and dimensions.

I enjoyed Graphics but could never fully let go of the traditional approach – much to my tutors’ dismay. That being said, I was perfectly able to explain myself so they could hardly fail me.

Of course I jumped at the chance to finally combine both methods through Illustration. This went okay although I soon discovered at university level how inner conflict had evolved. This was the year where I realised I’d passed some kind of hypnogogic barrier where the concept overtook the physical result of my artwork. I’d spent my whole life creating for the sake of it, to make something pretty, to meditate and to develop my skills.

Now I’d reached a stage where this was almost irrelevant as the students who had photo-realistic pencil skills were disregarded compared to my sheet of stream-of-consciousness writing I did for one art project. Good for me considering grades but I was left quite confused and disappointed. We have photography available if we want to create an exact image of something, which is why the translation between thoughts and feelings to paper is valued so highly now. It’s why everyone loves the Impressionists.

It was enough to make me quit my studies and reassess my objectives. I moved to Tbilisi and slowly-but-surely the urge to paint for the sake of painting started coming back. I’m still slightly intimidated by my art materials from fear of having to justify (atleast to myself) why I’m drawing this and what does it mean and who will use it and, most importantly, what is it good for? Is it all just a waste of time? What’s the meaning of life? … And so on and so forth.

This finally brings me to my point, Bob. A recent conversation with a friend of mine from Brazil who has recently moved to France and is indulging in all kinds of classic art debauchery has inspired me to finally note these thoughts down in some kind of William Morris-esque rant.

My friend discovered Bob Ross, my childhood hero, whose episodes have recently been made available online. We discussed how therapeutic it is just to watch him, let alone to create for yourself. Although, unlike my childhood self, I now watch Bob with a sense of sadness as I can imagine the attitudes towards him from certain circles. Even from myself if I let myself focus on this ‘high’ art attitude that’s been pushed and emphasised so strongly.

Another thing I experienced whilst studying in London was working as a PA for a gallery curator. This was by far the most enlightening experience for me, and again further deterred me from creating art as I’d finally been exposed to the kind of industry that surrounds it. Long story short, you need money and connections. The ‘struggling artist’ is no more.

With this exposure on top of the rather snobby attitudes of my university tutors when discussing ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, I felt pretty disenchanted. ‘High’ art being very high-quality, polished and conceptually stimulating and ‘low’ art being something quite unimpressive both mentally and physically… But, says who?

A tutor once mocked middle-aged, middle class white women who sit at home on a Sunday and paint flowers all day. I understand why, he wanted us to think deeply about what we were creating and why and to distance ourselves from (supposedly) other areas of society who do ‘arts and crafts’ for a hobby.

Since then, ‘arts and crafts’ has been used in a derogatory way, causing images of pipe cleaners and glitter to flash through my mind. I’ll resist from ranting appreciation towards the Arts & Crafts movement today and instead focus on asking the question of what makes one approach better than the other?

If these women who paint flowers on a Sunday feel meditative, thoughtful, reflective and peaceful after painting, then who is anyone to dismiss them for not having a concept? Did Van Gogh have a concept when he painted the Sunflowers which almost moved me to tears when I saw them in person?

As someone who has dabbled in ‘creating’ since she could hold a pen, I can most definitely say that, while you may gain depth socially, historically or whatever conceptually (I love conceptually arousing art as much as the next person), you risk losing the meditative, engaging, stimulating, self-loving energy as you try to create something for everyone else to utilise (maybe not even to enjoy) before considering your own needs first.

The truly ‘artistic’ aspect of creating anything is the state it puts you in while you create, above all else. I’ve met several people who live like art, everything they do is thoughtful, deep and beautiful and they can’t draw Cinderella to save their lives. I think it was Osho who said “Let your life be a painting, let your life be a poem.” 

I’ll definitely come back to this topic later, I just wanted to spew some incoherent ideas. If you have any thoughts on this then I’d love to hear them and we can discuss art over a virtual bottle of red.

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15 thoughts on “Bob Ross: An Art Conversation

  1. Merilee says:

    There is SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO much that I can say about this, that I am not sure where to begin. I was artistically-gifted as a child, yet did not have the desire to constantly draw and paint. I could also play the violin easily, I loved to act and always got the lead in school plays. I could write. I could do it all. Yet I never felt an overwhelming desire to do any of them. Until now.

    I grew up with a well-known artist of incredible talent and creativity. I lived with this person for awhile in my early 20’s and also had it drilled into my head that Bob Ross was not someone you were to give any time to, and even Andrew Wyeth was considered to be a mere “illustrator”. Illustrators in general were the workhorses of the advertising and editorial world and were not to be given attention. This always bothered me. Because it didn’t seem right for me to judge another’s work as being valid or not valid. It was their business, not mine. I finally came to the conclusion that my own work is my business and I’m not about to make a judgement call on anyone else’s.

    As far as my own work is concerned, I now make images with a camera. Just like ten million other people around the world. Some days I wonder why I’m doing it, when so many other people are also flooding the Internet with photographic images. And then I remember: It’s been done before, but not by me. So I go out and make images that please ME, not the general public, not curators, not anyone but me. It’s what keeps it exciting for me. I don’t do it for accolades or attention. I do it because I must. It feeds me. It feeds my soul.

    I will go back to painting again, and when I do, I will be doing it for me. Not anyone else. And I will push myself to make images on canvas or paper or whatever that carry the emotion and feeling that I felt while creating it. The vibration of the subject matter. That’s what interests me now in my 50’s rather than when I was 20 and wondered what on earth I could possibly “say” in a painting, when I hadn’t really lived my life yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • itstartedinoxford says:

      I’m so, so glad to hear that, despite this conflict, you’re still going forward and doing what you like. I need to get that kind of confidence. You’re right, it’s different and interesting because you made it, not someone else. I’d never even thought of that. Sounds like you know exactly where you stand with it all so I can only wish you the best of luck and success in future!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Merilee says:

        I’m almost 53 years old and I’ve got some miles on my odometer. I now have something to “say”. Unless I have a drive to really speak through the language of the visual arts, then it’s not meaningful. And then I don’t want to do it, like when I was a kid.

        BTW, there is absolutely nothing wrong with arts and crafts. They have a very valuable place, a meditative place that calms the mind and allows the doer to be creative. It’s very therapeutic for children, the elderly, the mentally challenged, for people from all walks of life. The naysayers don’t understand the higher meaning of such activities. I ignore those people. There is room for all of it and for all of us to do what pleases us as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. Ok, I’ll get off my soapbox… 😉

        Like

  2. Micki Allen says:

    I grew up watching his show with my grandmother who was a wonderful self-taught [therapeutic?] painter. I don’t know whether or not she was quoting Bob, but she would say, “What? You made a mistake? No problem, that mistake is now a bird. “

    Like

  3. anexactinglife says:

    When I saw the photo and title, I thought, “Oh no, you are going to dis Bob Ross!” He was so joyful and inspiring to people. So thanks for acknowledging that. Any art I do is just to play around with techniques. Interesting – since I’ve become a librarian, I doubt I’ll ever write a book. Too aware of publishing industry, book reviews, etc.

    Like

  4. Sue Vincent says:

    No doubt there are ‘official’ definitions for what distinguishes art from the stuff produced by hobby artists. I love painting… but an artist? Untrained and not good enough technically even to my own eyes. Even so, I have had some major commissions. More importantly, I have been able to share the love of paint with troubled youngsters and seen their confidence blossom as they found a way to express themselves on canvas… a confidence that spilled over into all areas of their lives, just as paint did for me. If art must hold something of the soul of the artist, have something to say, change lives and alter perception in order to be art, then the amateur daubs of those teenagers were art in perhaps its purest sense. If the creative state opens the inner doors of perception, that should be worth more than a price tag. I think you are right about the Sunflowers… sheer exuberance on canvas.

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