Bob Ross- Energetic painter or soulless artist?

An iconic Bob Ross landscape features the unmistakable hair and smile of this famous artist.

photoshopped by Mr. Rogers

An iconic Bob Ross landscape features the unmistakable hair and smile of this famous artist.

Despite his celebrity, Bob Ross’s artwork is nothing more than soulless. While it’s no reflection of his character (what truly brought him to fame) the beloved artist was never groundbreaking in his work. Sure, he painted some pretty pictures, but that’s all they were, pretty. His style, while iconic, never quite reached the status of unique. But in the chance you disagree, there is an easy way to prove me wrong: simply sketch a painting of his.

All you have to do is draw a composition from memory. Out of all 403 episodes of his show “The Joy of Painting”, surely, there must be a favorite of yours you can name or distinctly describe. But unless you’ve recreated his artwork, or used his methods yourself, I would bet serious money you can’t name one, even if you adore the show.

This is why I claim Bob Ross’s Artwork is soulless. Despite his adoration, there is little he is known for beyond personality and technical skill. Unlike other popular artists, Bob Ross’s work has never lived past his name. And to prove this, I have an example.

Consider the two paintings below, one of which was painted by Ross.  The other painting is what appears on Google when you research “generic mountain painting”. If you can’t tell them apart, it only further pushes this idea of soullessness. And if you can tell them apart, it’s a real punch to the gut when you learn this “generic mountain painting” is actually the thumbnail for a YouTube video by Karen Rankin, which specifically states in the description that it is “Bob Ross Style”.

Mountain Lake by Karen Rankin


Gray Mountain by Bob Ross

But beyond what’s considered to be a generic style, let’s look into what specifically makes his work so visually soulless. We’re going to use the definition, “lacking in character or individuality” for “soulless”. It’s important to remember that we are not talking about the man himself, or the processes and reasons he makes his art. We are only looking at the pieces themselves, without the context of Ross. But before judging them, we must identify what composes the “generic” style that he uses.

By far, the most common characteristic of Bob Ross’s artwork was his subject matter, landscapes. Nearly all his 1,000+ paintings from the show depict one. Some of the most common elements include: a body of water, mountains, trees, and the occasional human made structure, typically from wood. None of them are particularly creative, but it would be shallow to judge an artist exclusively on their subject matter, because many have uniquely depicted typical things. In terms of shape and stroke, they mostly stay true to their real-life counterparts, only with slightly more gestural forms. While his work isn’t exactly hyper realistic, it’s not explicitly stylized either. It can be argued that (at least) his choice of color deviates from what would be visually accurate, but only slightly, and typically by its saturation. When considering all the elements of his work, nothing exactly stands out beyond his other pieces.

But in all my arguments, there’s one major flaw. If his paintings are truly soulless, how are they so well known as a collective? In the end, his artwork has little character, but the man himself is anything but. The true source of his work’s fame is his personality, not the art itself. Bob Ross made paintings that were purposely simple, because that made it easier for his audience to follow along. He put his soul, not into his work, but into the inspiration of his audience.