If you tuned in to the BBC when the pandemic hit in March 2020, you might’ve come across a man with an impeccable perm, narrating softly while painting a serene Alaskan mountain range—a place you probably wished you were when trapped in the confines of your living room. That man is Bob Ross—arguably the most iconic, and definitely the most recognisable, painter of the late 1900s.
Thanks to becoming somewhat of a meme on Twitch, the man has gained rapid internet popularity from his show The Joy of Painting, which ran for 31 series from 1983 to 1994. His iconic persona and art style has enchanted generations—but how did this man come to be? I’ve dug through the history books to find out how this iconic man came to be, and the legacy he’s left behind.
Take a look at his art and you’d assume Bob Ross was born in Alaska, Canada or, at a push, maybe a remote cabin in Idaho? The truth might surprise you. Robert Norman Ross was born on 29 October 1942, in the beach-side city of Daytona, Florida—a world away from his scenic landscape paintings of iconic mountainous arctic tundras.
Ross by no means had a rags-to-riches story, he actually enjoyed a fairly conventional 1950s American upbringing. His dad was a carpenter and, for a short time, Ross spent his formative years working in the family business. However, on one fateful day, a tragic accident where Bob lost a part of his index finger while working changed everything.
If there’s anything to prove that the butterfly effect exists, it’s this. When life gives you lemons, just think of Bob—everything happens for a reason. If it wasn’t for Ross losing part of his finger, he wouldn’t have become the man we cherish today and would’ve most likely stayed a carpenter making (probably quite aesthetic) furniture for the rest of his days.
But he didn’t continue making furniture. In fact, the accident led him to throw in the carpentry towel and search for a career change. That change was for the Air Force, which he joined in 1960, marking a new chapter in the artist’s life.
While stationed in Alaska, Ross discovered his passion for painting—taking a number of classes outside of his working hours. However, he found himself at odds with many of his painting instructors, who specialised more in abstract painting. The very man himself told The New York Times, “they’d tell you what makes a tree, but they wouldn’t tell you how to paint a tree.”
Now, I can’t tell you for certain what went on in these art classes but gathering it was the 1960s, it wouldn’t be past the realm of possibility that they dabbled in a few drugs to unleash their artistic spirit. Mind you, Ross was in the Air Force at the time, which perhaps explains why he rallied against the more abstract aspect of painting—I doubt LSD and flying fighter planes would’ve been a great mix.
It wasn’t before when Ross discovered wet-on-wet, or to put it in fancy art terms ‘alla prima’, oil painting that he really found his artistic stride. Ironically, Ross was taught this type of painting—now his iconic style—by a German painter called Bill Alexander who hosted his own show The Magic of Oil Painting in the 1980s. Little did Ross know at the time, he would go on to host a cherished art show of his own, binged by millions of millennials on Netflix for generations later.
Ross fell for this style of alla prima oil painting, mastering his technique by capturing and flogging his Alaskan surroundings painted on gold-mining pans. Eventually, he made such a name for himself that his income from art surpassed his military salary and he was able to retire from the Airforce in 1981.
It sounds like the Air Force was never for him anyway. According to the local newspaper the Orlando Sentinel, his role required him to be aggressive and authoritative, out of character for the sweet hippie-looking, afro-rocking man we know and love. He told the Sentinel he was “the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work.” The day he left the military, he vowed never to raise his voice again. This explains his soft, soothing and monotonic voice—ah, talk me to sleep, sweet Rossy.
The origins of his debut TV show, The Joy of Painting, is elusive as his iconic dress sense, permed hair and artistic talent. Please, if you do know how he made the jump from canvas to television screens, let me know. From digging through the archives, what I can tell you is that when he left the Air Force, he worked for Alexander Magic Art Supplies Company (remember the German guy who ran his own painting show? He also owned that company). I’d like to think of their relationship as the Padawan (Ross) and the Jedi (Alexander).
In this scenario, the Padawan definitely did become the Jedi—in fact, he surpassed the Jedi. While leading one of his art tutoring lessons for Alexander Magic Art Supplies Company, he was convinced by one of his students Annette Kowalski to start an art business of his own. She, along with Ross and his wife, pooled their savings to start it together, which blossomed into The Joy of Painting that is enjoyed to this day.
It was a risky move and they struggled at first—but it paid off. Now, Ross’ international fame has made his style, perm and personality recognisable across generations. He’s painted over 30,000 pieces—a collection that’s likely priced in the multi-millions. With so many of these paintings out there, it’ll be easy to cop one yourself right? Nope. Kowalski holds the keys to the stash of paintings and doesn’t plan on selling them anytime soon, it’s not Ross’ style.
And there you have it, the mystery of Bob Ross unveiled. I’m sure there’s a lot I’ve missed, after all, a single article can’t cover such a successful artist’s entire life. However, I hope I’ve given a decent summary of how the legend came to be. Unfortunately, like all things in life, everything must come to an end. Although Ross sadly passed away from lymphoma at the age of 52, his perm and persona lives on and will continue to touch the hearts of many for years to come.
To mark the one-year anniversary sale of the Portrait of Edmond Bellamy, the first AI-generated art piece auctioned at Christie’s in New York for $432,500, I ask myself, can anyone who has some kind of algorithm know-how become the next Andy Warhol? Is art made by machines ‘good art’? Should it even be considered art at all? These questions have been asked around the art and tech circles since last October, when the blurry 19th-century-inspired portrait created entirely by an AI machine was unveiled at the iconic auction house.
What makes AI art groundbreaking is that it uses GAN (Generative Adversarial Networks). This is a machine modelled after the human brain with two approaches to thought and conception: first, it scours images and detects patterns using an algorithm. Then it generates images that align with that algorithm. In a rigid industry ruled by ‘White Cube elitism’, it’s surprising that tech mediums such as artificial intelligence, deep learning, and adversarial networks are having a moment in the art world. Although this historic auction signalled the disruption of art by the digital revolution, its controversy has not been ignored.
Some may argue that this could be the end of art as we know it, with artists worrying about machines possibly stealing their jobs and putting them out of work. Others have debated whether machine-made paintings and prints should even be considered art. Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Jerry Saltz has said “AI artists are striving for their machines to paint like humans do or even better. But why should they?” If artists and scientists are striving to pioneer in this new form of artistry, why not explore other modes of creativity? These are both exciting and scary prospects, but the question people should be asking themselves is why is AI art created only on paintings and prints?
To some, paintings and prints can be considered as an outdated medium, and if AI’s advantage is being more cognitively advanced than humans, why not use it on a more advanced level? One that springs to mind is digital face filters (yes, digital face filters like the ones on Instagram). Hear me out—although their popularity amongst the selfie-obsessed has been pioneering what is digital beauty and disrupting societal beauty standards, they should also be recognised in an art context.
As we are always interacting with flat dimensions, seeing art through a face brings a new perspective to understanding art. Filters such as the ones made by digital artist Johanna Jaskowska, who created the famous Beauty3000, Blast, and Zoufriya, have been transforming faces into otherworldly living artworks. Using AR-made face filters as a medium for AI-generated imagery could catapult the future relationship between art and tech.
Think about it this way—the Mona Lisa is the most photographed art piece in history, yet everyone would kill to have the original sitting in their homes. Who wouldn’t want to buy a face filter if you knew you and only a slim few others would be able to experience it and show it off on your social media platforms? Plus, if AI-made blurry prints can make it into Christie’s, then why can’t face filters? The art world should see beyond the White Cube and realise that art in the digital era shouldn’t just live on canvas anymore.
Why put a wealth of knowledge on an outdated medium? AI art is presenting a new form of creative thinking that is beyond human comprehension, and it’s a disservice to put this contemporary way of thinking into old mediums. Besides, seeing AI used in creation with already overused mediums doesn’t seem that groundbreaking. For being so innovative, using old methods seems counterintuitive.
The reason why some aren’t convinced of the significance of AI art is that it looks like it was badly made, and, more importantly, that a human made it. Shouldn’t we focus on the fact that it was machine-made and conceptualised by a machine? Although seeing face filters on auction at Christie’s or seeing digital artists such as Johanna Jaskowska, Jade Roche, and Mathieu Ernst next to the Old Masters in museums may seem like a stretch for now, who knows where the future of art lies in the techy world. In the words of Andy Warhol himself, “Art is what you can get away with.” We just need to push the boundaries.