Updated: Apr 15
Certainly glad you could join me today. I've mentioned Bob Ross before on this blog. For those unfamiliar, he's an American painter, who spread the joy of painting via his long running series on US public television. Each episode shows him completing a painting, in real-time, in just half an hour.
On first impressions, he appears to be something of a comic creation. And he's certainly funny; both overtly, and in the subtleties of his expressions and mannerisms. In addition to that, his art is often dismissed as shallow and popularist. But despite those things, his warm and engaging attitude won over millions of viewers, some of whom painted along, but the vast majority watch for the enjoyment and relaxation - myself included. He might be a slightly eccentric oddity, but so am I. And I find his inspirational tone and quiet encouragement to be a positive influence. I admire his will to bring art to a mainstream audience, and to motivate the wider public to indulge their creative interests.
Underneath the kitchz veneer of 'guilty pleasure', Bob Ross is undoubtedly a gifted painter, and skilled pro. As far as his paintings go; the colours are pretty garish, and the scenes are a little over-romanticised - even for my taste. But like any talented artist, there's a lot we can learn from Ross' work. So after watching many hours of Bob, let's have a little fun up in here, and run through a few of my own observations and analysis of Bob Ross compositions.
Click the images below to view large.
All paintings shown are © Bob Ross Inc, and used here for reference only.
Naturally Framing the Subject
As people read an image, the eye can easily get lost, or accidentally diverted outside the picture. Experienced artists guide the eye towards the subject; drawing you in, whilst at the same time adding context using the surrounding features. Those same compositional tricks and visual cues can also be deployed to block-off the eye's escape routes, and lead the viewer back into the image. Of course, for Bob Ross, these elements are often trees. The beauty of watching him put these little rascals in is that they're often one of the last features to be added (as they're in the foreground). So you already have a scene which doesn't appear to need any further elements added to it. But sure enough, Bob will take the bravery test and block in a tree shape over the top of the scene behind. It can feel a little crazy at the time, but very quickly you see that although it covers some background elements, it does a great job of shaping the image, and engaging the viewer with the scene.
In my world, I tried to use the foreground trees from this look-out point, to frame the sun-lit cliffs and distant rainforest of the Blue Mountains. I clearly remember channelling my inner Bob Ross at the time, to help me find a more layered image...
"I think there's an artist hidden at the bottom of every single one of us" - Bob Ross
Ross is very adept at using S-Curves in his paintings. A form of complex leading-line, they're extremely effective at leading the viewer through the image, from front-to-back, and vice-versa. Using S-Curves in this way encourages viewers to take in the whole picture, and can often act as a kind of map; highlighting a route between the key features of the image.
Bob Ross builds the curves in the layers he paints, from top to bottom (background to foreground). As he does this, he gives the impression that the image is very much off-the-cuff, but in fact he's planning for these layers and curves the whole time. As he sweeps in the green hues of the middle-distance, he's always careful to create intersecting horizontal lines, which form the basis of the curves, and leave a strong leading line to dissect the image.
As far as photography goes, obviously I can't build those layers up myself. But I can train myself to recognise them when I see them. Below, the winding curves of Aurlandsfjord, in Norway...
"There's nothing wrong with having a tree as a friend" - Bob Ross
Attempting to reverse-engineer the 'focal length' of Bob Ross' paintings, I'd guess they tend to equate to around the 40-50mm mark. Some are a little wider than others, and some a little longer, but for the most part, they seem to me to sit in that sort of range. And that's no surprise, since many people recognise ~45mm as roughly equivalent to the human eye. What's surprising is how few people use this focal length for landscape photography, compared to wide-angles, and to a lesser extent tele-zooms. Personally I struggle with wide-angle landscape photography; rarely finding I get a satisfactory composition with it. I'm more often drawn to picking out subjects within scenes, using a 70-200mm. But maybe I ought to stop leap-frogging this tricky mid-range, take a leaf out of Bob's book, and learn to compose a more natural field of view.
50mm is a focal length that I love, but it's a real skill to learn how to use it for landscape photography. I've been experimenting with it for the last couple of years, and have taken a few successful images. But I'm yet to really use this kind of field-of-view as effectively as Bob does. This is a 50mm photo, taken in Skuleskogen National Park, in Sweden. I like the natural aspect afforded by the medium focal length...
"People might look at you a bit funny, but it's okay. Artists are allowed to be a bit different" - Bob Ross
Pack in features from front to back
Bob Ross will very often (and time permitting) fill his paintings with points of interest, dotted around throughout the scene. These features are found from the front to the back of the image, and on the left and the right (though rarely down the centre), and vary in size according to their role. I like to think that a classic Bob Ross painting features a mountain in the background. The middle distance is often defined by the indication of distant pine trees. In the foreground, he'll put rocks, shrubs, sticks, and all sorts of little do-ers, under the guise of giving a home to the squirrels and critters that might be living there. And while that might be true, visually they add an important layer of extra interest and context to the scene.
Interestingly, he rarely places two elements on the same vertical plane. By distributing the features evenly from front to back, the eye is lead through the scene in a kind of subconscious join-the-dots exercise. Placing two subjects on the same plane would create a subtle barrier to the rest of the image, so it seems to me that he's always careful to avoid this.
Of course, almost all of the elements Bob puts in his paintings are natural, with the exception being those classic wooden cabins. They perform a special role; they create the context which helps put the viewer in the scene. For a modern Instagram approach, you might replace the hut with a girl in a yellow jacket looking wistfully into the distance. Both approaches are using that key element as a device to help the viewer put themself in the scene. As well as adding an obvious route in, they also add scale to the image. If you look at the paintings throughout this post, you'll notice that the ones with a cabin feel more relatable - more like you're there, as opposed to looking at a painting or out a window.
This photo shows probably my most Bob Ross photo; mountains, lake, reflections, snow, happy little trees, little fluffy clouds. Though to be true Bob Ross style it could have done with a few foreground trees too...
"Go out on a limb; that’s where the fruit is" - Bob Ross
It goes without saying that painting and photography are very different skills. As a landscape photographer, I am obviously at the mercy of what's in front of my lens, without the luxury of being able to paint in an interesting sky or foreground element. But by learning these compositional concepts, I'm doing my best to train myself to recognise the opportunities in the field, and learning to change my perspective to create a more interesting shot. I'm not sure I'll ever get any photos which look like Bob Ross paintings. I don't generally shoot in the kinds of national parks he painted, and even if I did, I'd need a lot to come together in order to be able to frame it accordingly. But that's not really the point. As he paints, Ross will often reiterate that he's not intending to coach people into copying his painting. Rather, he's teaching us how to use certain components, in order to build up an original image for ourselves. So the key message from Bob Ross, I think, is to learn the lessons, and apply them to our own work, in our own way. I think that taking his techniques on board is helping me evolve and improve my composition making, and hopefully will help you in your world too - whether you're a painter, photographer or any other kind of artist.
There are so many lessons to be learnt from painters and artists, that any photographer would be naive to overlook. And there are countless articles about what can be gleaned from the classic painters in history. Rembrandt has a whole style of lighting named after him, which is still used by portrait photographers today. But I wanted to stand up for a modern painter, who is easily scoffed at. I've made the point on this blog before, that the art community can become quite insular, and inward-looking; ironically missing the bigger picture. Like Bob, I want my art to appeal to the wider public, and there should be nothing wrong with that. So who better to learn from than Bob Ross. His timeless pictures of the great outdoors will endure for years to come, I'm sure. And one day I hope to be able to look back and say I took a photo as compositionally accomplished as a Bob Ross painting.
If this has got you interested in watching the great man for yourself, you can find Bob Ross on Netflix, YouTube (where the Bob Ross channel shares every one of his shows), or you can find the website here.