Bob Ross’ Joy of Painting series has always marveled me for some reason. Whether it be Ross’ colorful one-liners, endlessly upbeat demeanor, or calming sense of style, Joy of Painting is one of my all-time favorite shows. When I first started watching, I was continuously amazed how, in a mere thirty minutes, Ross could take a blank canvas, throw a few colors on it, mix them around, and somehow come out with what appeared to be a multi-faceted, extremely detailed vista of nature.
It wasn’t until I watched more episodes and focused on his wet-on-wet, oil painting technique that I realized he is essentially an illusory sort of painter whose style centers on the audience mentally bringing his simple color blotches to life. Though he might paint a tree in the foreground with a fair amount of detail, the backgrounds of his images tend to be no more than clever mixes and blotches of color that appear as realistic and expansive as ever if not individually focused on. The tree itself though, the proverbial Rossian foreground image, is hardly an interesting visual dynamic on its own. Ross’ paintings come to life from the background images, the supporting colors, even though they appear as no more than random blotches if they’re isolated. Ross still wants to talk about the Tree in the foreground; that’s his subject of study, but that tree doesn’t exist in the same world and isn’t given the same expansive scope without well-placed blotches of color behind it. Ross mastered this art of illusion, and it seems he wasn’t just being playful when he talked about not knowing where he was going next or about watching his paintings come to life.
Comic artists use similar techniques to bring a panel’s surrounding environment to life without having to specifically detail every minute color and line, which would be essentially impossible to accomplish over any sort of lengthy comic. Ross used the techniques because they’re simple, teachable, and can make painting look easy–perfect for an instructive television show. Additionally, with only a thirty minute time slot, Ross didn’t have the time for more traditional painting. Despite that convenience, there is an undeniable elegance to Ross’ simple techniques that often goes uncared for in some comics. The art is an extremely subtle one that needs to be appropriately balanced and fine-tuned if the resulting image is to look organic. In comics, the filler techniques are commonly used for scenery, like Ross, as well as when crowds of people are present at once-often where the most awkward images are found.
Admittedly, Ross never included people in his paintings, so there’s no telling whether he would have run in to the same issues, but some comics have some particularly striking displays of blatant, husk-like, would-be humans. Most of these cases still take a close eye to notice, but others look rather alien; as if the world were full of clones. To be fair, crowds are a notoriously difficult image to deal with, just ask the developers of sports video games. If you already noticed, there are about two hundred guys in a red shirt eating a hot dog, sometimes even buddying up next to each other.
Is it possible for comics and other forms of visual media to draw their background, filler material like Bob Ross? For all cases and purposes, Ross probably isn’t the king of these techniques, but it took me a long time to realize just what he was doing—exactly the amount of time it should.