Bob Ross and the Art of Creativity

Bob Ross was known for his landscapes. Was this cabin on a hill inspired by him?
Photo by Melvin Thambi on Unsplash

From 1983 to 1994, Bob Ross taught the world to paint on PBS’ “The Joy of Painting.” In almost 30-minute episodes, Ross would go from a mostly blank canvas to an amazing land- or seascape, and he would take his viewers with him. He gave people the opportunity to explore their own creativity through the wet-on-wet technique. Ross’ program hints at several creativity principles. If you’ve never seen him paint before, watch the episode and be ready for the magic.

Making Space

Creativity takes a dedicated space. This can be as simple as a laptop and a place to sit or as elaborate as a major film studio backlot. Ross’ space to create is a simple studio set where the only lighted areas are him and the canvas. Everything else is in blackness, eliminating any distractions that could come from a cluttered set. The easel and canvas are set up and ready to be used.

Making Time

When these episodes aired on television, if you wanted to paint along, you had to be in front of your television and ready to go. If you had a VCR, you may have been able to record the show for later, but you still had to set aside the time to watch and practice. Creativity takes time, and you have to carve that time out of your busy schedule if you want more creativity in your life. Ross makes more time for creativity by not washing his bushes during the process. He has several brushes he can use, so he avoids using his creative time in the mundane task of washing.

Lifelong Learning

In this episode, Ross encourages people to go to the ocean and watch it. If that option isn’t available, he suggests using pictures or videos to “study the ocean.” Ross is a lifelong learner, who encourages thinking about what you’re painting and how it moves. Ross started painting in the 1960s according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. When he retired from the U.S. Air Force, he “sought out private painting lessons” from television painter Bill Alexander. Ross eventually took over for Alexander as the painter on PBS.

Believe You Can

Ross’ painting tutorials are overflowing with words of encouragement. He believes in you, so you can believe in yourself. When you believe you’re creative, you’re more likely to engage in creative thinking and activities. You are also prepared to improve your creativity. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Ross wants you to know that “You can do anything that you want to do.”

Getting Comfortable

Ross gives you the colors of paint that he is using, and his calm voice reassures you that the process is going to be easy. By creating a laid-back atmosphere and helping people be comfortable with their skills, Ross is providing his viewers with an opportunity to embrace creativity. This is a no judgement zone where you’re free to have “happy little accidents.” There is no right answer, just the generation of ideas and brushstrokes.

Squirrels: Finding the Intersection

As Ross is adding color to his sky, he talks about the squirrels he’s taking care of and shows a video. What do squirrels have to do with painting? Nothing, but they provide an important point for creativity. New ideas and innovations come from the intersection of two unrelated subjects. By adding a video about baby squirrels, talking about nature, and showing how they are feeding the squirrels, Ross’ non-sequitur could feed a student to have a greater creative breakthrough.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Ross practiced his art for decades, and the magic shows on the screen. It takes practice to be good at anything, including creativity.

These principles aren’t just valid for painting. They are also valid for any endeavor that requires more creativity. The more you use your imagination and creative skills, the more ideas you’ll have and the more you’ll be able to innovate.

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Shad Engkilterra

Shad Engkilterra

Earned a Master’s in Creativity and Innovation from Malta U., author of “Disneyland Is Creativity” and other books, other works available at www.penguinate.com.