Recently, my chiropractor was asking about my artwork, so I pointed him to this blog. The next time I saw him, we continued the conversation about art. He asked if I’d ever followed along with Bob Ross videos while painting. I laughed and responded that everything I know about oil I learned from my grandmother and a wonderful college professor, Rod Crossman (whose artwork you can view by clicking this link). As it happens, Rod Crossman had his own local TV show. I remember watching a few episodes of Crossman’s show back in college…which is probably 2-3 more episodes than I ever watched of Bob Ross. The iconic artist whose afro can still be seen on art supplies in Hobby Lobbies across the U.S., would talk in his lullaby voice about “Happy Trees.” Eventually, the phrase and the voice imbedded into America’s subconscious. We’d all love to paint easily and effortlessly. We’d love to place a touch of light here and a dab of tree there and have everything pull together into the perfect landscape we picture in our mind’s eye.
But the reality is that as artists we often struggle to capture perfection. In fact, we end up over-working areas of the canvas (especially in oil paint) and creating mud…colors smudged and running together to the point that we must wipe it all clean with turpentine and begin again. I remember Crossman saying, “Lay it down and leave it! Don’t overwork the brush stroke.”
Perhaps that struggle to perfect oil is the reason my very first oil painting is one of my favorites. Grandma had a tradition that the summer each grandchild turned 7, she would sit down with them and help them paint their first oil painting. To this day, I can picture us in her studio. Me in the tall artist’s chair that swiveled when you turned. An empty canvas in front of me. Palette, brushes, and knife nearby. The scent of turpentine in an old coffee can, ready to clean off our brushes. And, Grandma next to me, telling me which brush to use and how to mix my colors. Any time I smell oil paints now, it takes me back to that studio space.
Bob Ross talked about “Happy Trees.” For me, it’s “Happy Clouds.” Those circular cotton balls floating above the mountains were probably swiped onto the canvas using a rag. They are extremely childlike in their simplicity. One section of mountains looks flat and unfinished. But, for the most part, those mountains are a lesson in the FUN of a palette knife. Color laid down, scraped at an angle, pastel yellow highlights on top like a smear of butter on toast. Dark green bushes stand shoulder to shoulder, each its own peculiar shape and size. Then, the fan brush! You can tell I got a little too excited, dabbing clusters of wild flowers across the ground. Finally, the lake, a cheerful periwinkle blue, reflecting hints of the yellow soil around its banks. And, no less important than the landscape itself, my name – signed with the bold, awkward lettering of a 7-year-old.
When was the last time you let yourself play as an artist? Experimenting with brushes, trying out new tools, dabbing flowers across a field for the fun of it? My chiropractor mentioned that Bob Ross had been a drill sergeant before becoming famous. However, once discharged from the military, he was determined never to raise his voice again. Instead, he learned to paint for fun. Remember the title of his show? – The Joy of Painting! You’ve got to hand it to the guy for not only loving the act of creation but instilling a love of painting into the lives and mindsets of generations of TV viewers. Next time you (or I) begin to feel that painting is more of a burden than a therapeutic creative outlet, maybe we should take a break from the desire for perfection and return to the simplicity of “Happy Trees” and “Happy Clouds.”