I would venture to guess that just about everyone in American knows who Bob Ross was. We either know him from his PBS instructional painting series, “The Joy of Painting” or, for the younger crowd, we know him from countless internet memes and other pop culture imagery. Either way, he became an American icon. He was placid and appealing, disarming and charming, thoughtful and charismatic. Okay, do you know his mentor, Bill Alexander? Oh, a few of you raised your hands.
Bill Alexander gained notoriety from his TV series on PBS revealing his “wet on wet” technique with oil painting. Bill Alexander was also Bob Ross’s teacher for a short time. Bill Alexander hosted the PBS series called, “The Magic of Oil Painting”, which aired for eight years. During Bill Alexander’s heyday, he developed and marketed his own brand of art supplies. After a few years, Bill handed over the gauntlet to his protégée, Bob Ross, giving Bob the opportunity to expand his career. Bob Ross seized the opportunity and wrote several instructional books on the “wet on wet” technique, and made several How-To videos and even marketed his own brand of paints and art supplies. Ross was the showman that Alexander could not be. Ross went on his way to stardom and snubbed his former mentor. Alexander was resentful and he claimed that Ross had copied his technique. A bitterness developed between the two of them that continued for the rest of their lives.
The “wet on wet” technique actually finds its origin in Flanders, now known as the Netherlands, during the 15th century. Artists such as, Caravaggio, Paul Cezanne, John Singer Sargent, and Claude Monet, were just a few of the artists that utilized the “wet on wet” painting style.
Bob Ross died in 1995. Bill Alexander died later, in 1997
Okay, bonus question: Who remembers Helen Van Wyk? “Bueller…Bueller?”
Just as I suspected.
In 1990 Helen Van Wyk’s TV series, “Welcome to my Studio”, aired on PBS for the first time. It was also the same year that she was diagnosed with cancer.
Helen wasted no time on her show. When the camera was turned on, she got straight to the point. She explained color theory, discussed the nature of light and darkness and illustrated elements of good design, all while manipulating her brush and mixing paint on her pallet. She produced beautiful still life paintings and portraits… not the glib, kitschy paintings that Bill Alexander and Bob Ross cranked out, show after show. Helen’s work conveyed a sense of sincerity and artistry and, when she spoke to her audience, she often spoke to herself, honestly. We could hear her praise and criticize her own actions as she painted. She had a knack for vocalizing the sort of thoughts that every artist experiences during the creative process. Her mistakes and victories were exposed. During those moments, we had the opportunity to see into her mind.
At the end of each episode, she would end with, “…and next week, I may teach you how to make soup”.
I have to admit, I watched all of her shows and I waited for the day that she would show me how to make soup. Helen Van Wyk died of cancer in 1994.
Fortunately, we can still find many of Helen’s episodes of “Welcome to my Studio” on YouTube. I encourage everyone to see Helen at work…whether you are a painter or a cook, because the truth of the matter is, painting and cooking are not so different. Anything that you do with a sense of passion and purpose is art.
…and next week I may show you how to paint!