It was Friday afternoon. I rode the school bus home, feeling the weight of a hectic week tugging at my eyelids and while the joy of the weekend glowed in my chest. When I got off at my street, I moved wearily towards my house in the distance, hunched under the yolk of my backpack, feet dragging against the gravel. Reaching the house, I lumbered through the front door, shuffled off my bag, and collapsed on the couch with a remote in my hands while the television buzzed to life. It was a hard week full of homework, projects, after-school activities, and the like. But it was no matter; I was in my sanctuary, it was Friday, and Bob Ross was on TV painting a serene river that would carry the weight of the world away.
Bob Ross might not need any introduction. His series “The Joy of Painting”, signature afro, and calming voice are defining characteristics of the ’80s and ’90s. From what I’ve read, Bob used to be in the Air Force and it was there that he developed a painting technique that allowed him to quickly finish highly-detailed paintings on work-breaks. Watch any episode and you will be amazed at how suddenly the canvas comes to life, like Polaroid photo developing into focus.
I do not paint. I do not draw. I have tried. After comparing my recent artwork to those I produced in first grade and finding nary a difference, I have surmised that such skills come naturally to some and not to others.
In Middle School, I did not watch the show to be inspired by Bob’s artistic mastery. Honestly, I just found the soothing combination of his voice, gentle demeanor, and the hush of paintbrushes on canvas to have the same effect as getting a back-massage. You may experience the same effect in the video above.
About a week ago, I rediscovered Bob Ross. I was on YouTube and discovered that Bob’s company now posts entire episodes online. I was having trouble sleeping that night so I decided to try listening to an episode with headphones in an attempt to doze off. It didn’t quite work but nonetheless I am glad to have made the rediscovery because I began to notice something:
Watching a painter at work is an exercise in trust. So is being alive.
With a small array of colors, brushes, and a knife, Bob will approach a prepared canvas and begin creating very simple shapes; a line, a blot of color, an arc. He’ll work around or within that shape by tapping, pressing, or swirling the brush in a technique that blends color and creates texture. Within minutes, that simple shape has developed into a tree with aged bark, a wreath of shrubbery, or the curved bank of a river. As an example, watch the transformation of the tree from 5:34 to 9:17 in the video above.
The process will continue as more life is added to the canvas in a collection of simplicity that grows into complex detail. Just when the painting seems to be reaching the apex of its beauty, something tragic happens: a smear of mismatched color is streaked down the middle or an unsightly shape invades the portrait, obscuring the details in the background. Just begin watching the video above at 11:25 and just see if you can keep yourself from clenching your fists and shouting, “STOP! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” as Bob calmly smears not one, not two, but four massive, thick, vertical black lines straight through the middle of a gorgeous forest scene and encourages us to “be brave” while we helplessly watch the destruction.
But don’t stop there. Keep watching. By 14:57 those gargantuan obstructions begin to make sense. By 21:00, as Bob adds the final touches, the shapes have morphed into a tree grove in the foreground, framing the background detail, adding depth to the painting, and inviting the viewer to step into the canvas and explore. By the end, the painting “needs” the tree grove; without it, something very precious would be missing. Should the canvas not have endured the momentary disruption, it’s beauty would have been incomplete.
As the viewer, I have to trust that Bob knows what he’s going to do with the simple shapes and questionable additions he’ll add as the work goes on. Something will come of it, to be sure, but the process of getting to that point can be a nerve-wracking experience as an audience member. “Be brave.”
Being alive is no different. Life is a canvas on which God paints beauty in all of its colors: light, dark, and in-between. Things that start of simply explode into meaningful depth: hobbies become life-long passions, jobs become careers, acquaintances become enduring companionships. All are details that make the most sense in perspective of the whole portrait. When isolated, they might not make much sense.
What about the unformed tree groves in life? What about the big, thick, vertical lines of things that clash down like prison bars, smearing over the beauty, comfort, and sensible details of our lives? Why does life feel passion-less? Why did the business fail? Why was the friendship severed? Whatever your questions are, there are no easy answers. They might remain dark, shapeless, and colorless for days, weeks, months, years. There is no shame in feeling the pain or the sorrow that comes. But the painting is not done yet.
Don’t give up.