Bob Ross critique Island in the Wilderness - The Joy of Painting S29E1
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Bob Ross: Island in the Wilderness

One of my most nostalgic memories as a kid was waking up Sunday morning and watching ‘The Joy of Painting’ featuring the now iconic painter Bob Ross.

Who doesn’t have fond memories of the afroed wet on wet painter. Everyone remembers his soothing voice, his references to, not mistakes but rather “happy accidents”, and of course Bob Ross’ squirrel friends who would love nothing more than to live in eternal bliss in his idyllic paintings.

Bob Ross, for many people, is the only exposure they will ever have to fine art, or to making their own paintings. While I believe that the lessons that Bob Ross taught us are very important, I also believe that it is important that we not set his beloved memory above reproach. Because Bob Ross is such an icon, it is more important than ever that we critique his work, and discuss what he did well and what he could have done better. In this way we can all learn and improve our process as artists, and the tastes of the general population can become more discerning. As a result people will come to love and respect Bob Ross as an artist for his skills, as well as find meaningful room for improvement in their own work.

The painting I would like to critique is the Island in the Wilderness painting.

Bob Ross Critique – The Good:

The first thing I’d like to point out is that the video is 25 min, which means that Bob Ross completed this painting in just about 23 minutes. This is incredibly fast. If you can complete a painting in 25 min and sell it for only $100 you’re making $240 per hour.

Highwaymen artist James Gibson example Bob Ross colors
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Art by Highwaymen artist James Gibson

This style of quick, wet on wet painting hearkens back to The Florida Highwaymen, who were not interested in portraying all of the details, but were more interested in being able to finish a painting quickly, which they then sold for $25. Adjusting for inflation would be about $216.

The Highwaymen, relied on their use of bright neon colors, not detail, to wow their potential customers, and this is what Bob Ross is doing. Relying on bright interesting colors rather than excessive realistic detail. This could be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you look at it. I mention this again in the needs improvement section.

Bob Ross has an instinctive understanding of light and atmospheric perspective. He uses his knowledge consistently to show depth.

Bob Ross’s use of brush work is stunningly good. In seconds he lays out trees, rocks, water, reflections, all with a variety of brushes. He makes it look completely effortless. Those of you who have tried his techniques may have noticed that while following what Bob Ross teaches sounds easy, actually accomplishing the same effect in real life is more difficult. This mastery of the brush and and paint deserves recognition.

He explains a basic principle of design in easy to understand terms. He says that everything needs a friend even the trees. Adding additional similar trees adds cohesiveness to the painting . A single tree alone would feel out of place in the composition and draw unnecessary attention.

Bob Ross Critique – What Needs Improvement:

As I mentioned before, the bright neon colors are probably a marketing technique to create interest in a painting that lacks finer rendering. It is a matter of taste weather or not you prefer this style over a more classical painting. However, what can not be ignored is that the lack of details, especially the lack of subtlety when using color. This causes the painting to appear flat and unrealistic.

While Bob Ross excels at wet on wet brush and knife work, where he needs improvement, and where most beginning artists need improvement, is the use of photo reference (or painting from life). Photo reference is a picture that aids the artist by providing important details that an artist can’t otherwise remember.

If you look at a photograph notice that a tree does not consist of two colors as Bob Ross paints them. Rather they contain subtle variations. Obviously adding these details would take much longer, and would be unrealistic for the purposes of the TV show; however, this teaches an important lesson: Always use photo reference when you are able!

Bob only starts to mix paint colors at about 7 minuets into the process, after he has put down the entire background. Usually when you are painting you should never use pure colors, try adding just a tiny dot of yellow ochre to your blue, or just a bit a rusty red. This will make the color less saturated and more realistic.

The larger trees sometimes become too repetitive in the branches. Fortunately he offsets this regularity with highlights that he adds later.They still retain much of their too regular shape though. If a shape is too regular it becomes boring and unrealistic.

Bob Ross Season 29 Episode 1: Island in the Wilderness


While Bob Ross is a master at quick brush work, where he needs improvement is in the use of more subtle colors, and the use of a greater variety of colors. This type of visual information can only be provided by the use of photo reference. To be fair to Bob Ross, it is incredible to complete a painting in only 23 minutes, and the time constraints no doubt had an impact on his work. I have see other paintings by Bob Ross with a great deal more detail and color variation. I believe he must have completed these on his own time.

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