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Bob Ross, Bill Alexander - beyond the pale?

Robert Phillip Jones

Posted on Tue 27 Oct 2015

A refugee from World War 2, William/Wilhelm Alexander, a Prussian artist, pioneered the "wet on wet" oil painting method (or his version of it). It was Bill Alexander who first performed on Public Broadcast US television, long before the more famous Bob Ross. It was Alexander who developed the "magic white", later "liquid white" in Ross's hands, he who pioneered the use of a trowel-shaped painting knife with one wide and one narrow edge, he who invented "liquid clear", developed a thick oil paint without which the technique would have been immeasurably more difficult, even he who used the words "happy little trees", "the almighty knife", and the catchphrases which Ross later made so famous.

I don't remember who coined the phrase "we don't make mistakes; we just have happy accidents": perhaps that was Ross's only unique contribution: there certainly weren't many others.

Alexander - as he makes clear in a number of demonstrations he made, punctuated by his singing (he couldn't really sing, but was quite endearing when he tried to) - researched his materials so far as he could within the limits of knowledge at the time: the 1970s - Ross picked up the baton in the 80s and 90s. He was well aware that his "magic white" - Titanium White, heavily cut with Linseed oil and possibly stand oil - had a strong tendency to yellow over time, and he knew that "liquid clear" would do the same. In those days, artists were using Copal Oil medium, among other things - but even if he didn't, Alexander knew that a major drawback to his method was that pictures deteriorated over time. When he, and later Bob Ross, cautioned against using too much of either, and stressed (eg) that "one can should last you a lifetime", this is what they meant. They didn't really suppose that these materials WOULD last you a lifetime: but they knew very well what would happen if you used too much.

Ross also knew that there was some controversy over using acrylic paints on the flexible canvas under oils: and was honest enough to say so, on more than one occasion while making his programmes. He didn't make anything of it: he drew no conclusions; he certainly didn't advise people not to do it - but he did acknowledge the danger that oil over acrylic on a flexible surface was problematic because of the different rates of drying.

One thing that Bob Ross had that Bill Alexander certainly lacked was a soft, hypnotic voice; and, in time, an appealing young man for a son - appealing in that he was quite sly, dropping artful little doubles entrendres into his own presentations; and as Bob proudly pointed out, Steve Ross was a rather better painter than his dad - just as Bill Alexander was a better painter than Ross. Ross, however, had a unique appeal - he could repeat the same old jokes programme after programme, paint the same picture, essentially, time after time, "beat the devil out of" his 2" brushes on the leg of the easel in every single show, make the same remark, give the same chuckle - but you didn't care, because by that time you'd been hypnotized ..... whether his art tuition was much good or not hardly mattered: Ross was the very best promoter of relaxation and sleep on US television at the time, and he still is on YouTube, 20 years after his untimely death.

I often watch Bob Ross demos when I can't sleep, and it always helps. He's the insomniac's friend.

But did these two - and more problematically their disciples - have anything to teach those of us who seek to paint in oil today?

On first showing, no - Alexander and Ross oil paints are not the same as those readily available to us from other manufacturers: they're much stiffer; the colours vary from the standard; and so far as I know, it's hard to tell what constitutes some of them. Sap Green, for instance, can be almost anything. The difference between Pthalo and Prussian Blue is nowhere near so great in most paint ranges as it is in the Alexander/Ross range; Vandyke Brown, again, could be anything - I've no idea what constitutes it in the Ross range, but I know it's very different from Vandyke Brown in, say, the Winton range. Dark Sienna is, presumably, Burnt Sienna - and as it is, you can't help but wonder why they don't just say so. And "midnight black"? Well - when we have watercolourists in the UK calling their peculiar mixes "country olive", or "natural blue", perhaps we can forgive Ross for imposing a meaningless name on his black pigment in order to disguise what it really is (Ivory Black? Mars Black? Mineral Black? Lamp Black? Paynes Grey plus? Who knows?). When major manufacturers plonk a name like Olive Green on some God-awful mixture of opaque colours - mud in a tube half the time - it's a bit harsh to get over critical of Ross.

Bear in mind, so far as technique is concerned, that Alexander and Ross were restricted to half-hour long programmes. You cannot paint a decent picture, reliably, in half an hour - even if you're using an 8" by 10" canvas, and these two couldn't do that because it would have been almost invisible on television. They worked on 18" by 24" canvases because they had to; and that dictated their working method. To their credit, neither edited their programmes - what you saw was what you got, a painting produced in half an hour, with all the issues that threw up. Look carefully at some of Bob Ross's paintings, resist being seduced by that voice and that smile, and some - by no means all - of them are pretty poor stuff.

And yet,some of them weren't. Some worked very well. Ross could paint mountains, and his son Steve certainly could. Alexander could paint trees (far better than Ross).

What Bob Ross, in particular, taught was short cuts to a tolerable painting, a painting you could put in a frame and show in a local exhibition and impress your old mum and a few select friends. Alexander - who was a professional painter before he developed his short cuts - could do the same and better. Leave aside the urge to criticize them and condemn them for their shortcomings, and take a look at the technique.

I would never recommend the use of "liquid/magic white", or "liquid clear": these are just short-cuts to enable TV programmes: you're not making TV programmes, are you? So why would you want them? The 2", 3" brushes, which you might use to paint the bathroom ... are they any good? Well, yes! If you're using a really big canvas, of course they are. But 18" by 24"? They're good for stippling - excellent for stippling - you're letting the brush do all the work, rather than painting leaves or branches yourself. Is that a problem? Well no - not really; if that's what you want to do. But bear in mind it won't produce an identifiable tree - it'll produce a Stipple Tree: a variety of growth known to no botanist ever.

And yet - the only real problem with Bill and Bob is that there are painters today who just copy them, endlessly - use the same techniques, the same palette, the same methods, the same language in the case of "certified Ross Instructors". Ross himself said, time and again, that he was not interested in teaching people how to copy - he taught a method. And he was generally clear - if you listened hard - that his was certainly not the only method. I've learned from Bob Ross and Bill Alexander,and have no shame in saying so - I agree with them that big brushes are better than tiny ones in the early stages; I like some of the effects they get with their big brushes; I think the Alexander/Ross knife is a distinct improvement on those designs that have gone before; I even agree with adding black to mixes - carefully. I agree that highlights should not be applied with pure white,but that white and a tiny touch of a bright red will produce a more convincing result (although I knew that before). I agree with scratching detail into paint with a knife. I've taken a lot from Bill and Bob, and it would be churlish to deny it.

So these two did contribute to art tuition. They most certainly enthused hundreds, even thousands - perhaps even tens of thousands - of people to paint. The problem,if there is one, lies in their disciples, not in themselves. I think William Alexander was an inspiring teacher; that Bob Ross was a devoted disciple with a very keen business sense, and incidentally a man of immense kindness and concern for wildlife (to which he devoted so much of his life). And, as I say, Ross helped me to sleep. Take what you can from them and enjoy it. But then, if you want to paint in oil - move on. For Heaven's sake, move on - beyond Alexander and Ross, beyond the Michael Willcox School of Colour, beyond anyone who has ever taught you, beyond anything you've ever read no matter how profound: the danger in the Bob Ross method is that it tends to bring you to an abrupt halt and trap you in a comfort zone - break out of it, kick it away, escape!

Bob Ross, Bill Alexander - beyond the pale?


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  • All very well summed up indeed Robert.

    I did watch Bob Ross on occasion many years ago, Sky TV it was, and made sure that both my teenage daughter's sat through it with me. They were both keen artist's and eventually went on to art college. The purpose of this was not to encourage them to paint in Bob's fashion, but to discourage them and highlight the pitfalls of copying a particular artist's style, and I mean not just Bob's style.

    Bob Ross's approach in no way prepares you for the real world outside the comfort of your studio, you don't get twee landscapes like that in the real world, well, I havn't seen them if they do exist. The trees where I live are all gnarled and battered though the ravages of time, they don't look happy but they do have character, and my clouds aren't white and fluffy, and even if they were I would change them. One of my pet hates are trees which are stippled with thick layers of paint in a vain attempt to copy nature, don't even go there!

    There is no doubt that Ross still has a massive worldwide endearing audience, and you can't take away the fact that he introduced or encouraged thousands of people to pick up a paintbrush and have a go, but I have to go with Robert's advice, break out and move on.

    Posted by Alan Bickley on Wed 28 Oct 09:15:26
  • Thanks for that, Alan. I think Bob Ross in particular painted Alaska - and rarely much else; he lived in Florida in the latter part of his life, but Alaska seemed permanently imprinted on his visual imagination. I can understand that - it's when people living in Pinner try to reproduce the same effects that things tend to go a little awry: because they've never seen the original, all they're doing is copying one man's fantasy, essentially, of the place he seemed to love most. They have no hope of producing anything of their own if they slavishly paint happy little mountains and happy little trees in idealized landscapes.

    Although it's quite possible that they don't necessarily want to: if a Bob Ross knock-off satisfies them - that's their business, even though I wouldn't call it painting. Now and then, though - I like to warn those who might want to make real progress that Bob's method is unlikely to get you there.

    Posted by Robert Jones, N.A.P.A. on Wed 28 Oct 10:09:33
  • I Googled Bob Ross the other day after reading the comments here , I wanted to show him to my 16 year old grand daughter to show her what not to do. For fun we pressed " images". And up popped dozens of pictures of happy painters in groups, holding up the the paintings they have slavishly copied brush stroke by boring brush stroke .
    Her own painting ability ( my grand daughter) is extremely good and she is at the start of a great arty adventure . So she was highly amused by all of these aspiring middle aged wanna be's.
    Once more it's each to their own and if doing this makes people happy so be it.
    I have reservations about this new craze for adult colouring books , I notice there is a competition here on P O L with this as a prize . I heard a talk in on radio 4 last week with people who are buying them and colouring in them , a point I had not thought about was using them as a therapy and alleviating stressful situations . So maybe the B R s of this world are providing a service in relieving stress . Oh let's not forget our home grown Keith Fenwick .

    Posted by SYLVIA EVANS on Sat 31 Oct 13:24:14
  • I never got worked up about the technical skills of either Bill or Bob...for me they weren't trying to dazzle us with their artistic aptitudes. I first saw Bill in the early 80's and my first impressions were "I can do THAT" I had a fear of getting into oil painting, because it just seemed beyond my skill level, and the costs made it prohibitive. Bill, and then Bob later on, broke that mystique that oil painting was for...well ARTISTS. But what I did discover after outfitting myself with their gear was that their method was very restrictive, and limited my desires to get into more detail. I got away from the "magic" stuff, and found the techniques that suited me and my style. Both of these pioneers' greatest contributions were that they told and showed us that we could do it too, and allowed us to go off and fine our own artistic bliss. Millions of us owe them a debt of gratitude.

    Posted by Mark Wales on Mon 10 Jul 22:35:03
  • Wow!!

    You Bill Alexander people certainly are bitter! Often sounding jealous with the Bob Ross fame that was not received to the same degree by Bill Alexander. Damn! Chill'll be okay, but get a sense of reality. Putt a painting of each side by side and there is absolutely no doubt who actually ruled. Who cares which one came up with the term "almighty tree," or "happy cloud." Remember, Bob was once a student of Bill's. If an effective phrase was said/used by Bill, then it makes sense that the phrase would be said/used by Bob. Calm down, dude!!

    Posted by Jennifer Benson on Tue 30 Jan 17:40:24
  • Jennifer Benson - you're commenting on a two and a bit year post, but don't seem to have read it: I'm no fan of William Alexander - he was just a better painter than Ross, because he had been properly trained (in Germany). I don't think the others commenting here are Bill Alexander fans particularly, either.

    I've re-read the other comments, and you don't seem to be addressing them at all, but where you got the idea that I think, or they think, the methods of either painter were worthy of emulation I'm not sure. They had their place - they popularized oil painting, though it was a rather particular kind of oil painting. No one here tried to take that away from them. But if you were to put a Wm Alexander next to a Bob Ross, and think that Ross was the better artist - you're just not looking properly.

    Either way, this isn't anything to do with Alexander vs. Ross - both are long dead, and their rivalry matters only to their respective companies, if it still even matters to them. The point is that both are still available on YouTube, and the methods they taught offer only a very limited way forward. I'm not interested in any popularity contest between them!

    Posted by Robert Jones, N.A.P.A. on Tue 30 Jan 20:40:10