Bob Ross & William Alexander

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!