While at the Comic-Con Museum in Balboa Park I was warned that if I wanted to sign up for the free Bob Ross landscape class, I had to get up pretty early. The museum opened up at 9:30 a.m., but if you didn’t line up by 8:30 a.m., you weren’t going to get one of those coveted seats.
According to Joan Kowalski, president of Bob Ross Distribution, “The classes filled up in three minutes.” She was surprised to learn that people were lining up for more than an hour in advance. Each class was only twenty people and with six classes over three days, sixty people got to learn the Bob Ross way of painting under certified instructors. If you missed out, don’t worry. Kowalsky enthused, “We have certified instructors all over the world. You just have to go to the website, BobRoss.com and look for a class.”
You might be wondering why Bob Ross would be at San Diego Comic-Con. SDCC and other comic book conventions began as a way for fans to talk about comics, and meet the writers and the artists. In artist alley, you can meet artists–famous, upcoming and struggling. The more famous artists and writers will have signings at their publisher’s booth. There’s a regular room dedicated to panels where artists come and talk about their art, art techniques, new software and publishing.
If you don’t know who Bob Ross is or was, you still might have seen his influence. His images has been spoofed in TV shows, films and video games. Bob Ross (1942-1995) was the creator and host of “The Joy of Painting” from 1983-1994 on PBS. Before he became a painter, he was in the military, rising to the rank of master sergeant in the US Air Force. During his time serving in Alaska, Ross became interested in painting first through a USO club art class and later through Bill Alexander’s TV program, “The Magic of Oil Painting,” where he discovered the alla prima (wet-on-wet) style. After training under Alexander, through the encouragement and financial support of Annette and Walt Kowalski, Ross was able to build a business.
According to Kowalski, some people confessed they came to the Comic-Con Museum not because of the special Batman Experience exhibition, but because of the Bob Ross classes. The free classes were in a restricted area on the upper level of the museum, outside of view of the attendees at SDCC at the convention center and the Comic-Con Museum visitors in the levels below. That was a big disappointment to Kowalski, but the sessions were live-streamed on Twitch. The Saturday morning class that I viewed had friends and individuals on their own of all ages and ethnicities. While some people seemed to be off to a rough start while painting in the sky, when I came back an hour later into the two-hour class, those skies had been fixed and the mountains were beginning to be defined, with some people showing strengths in different areas.
Renewed interest in Bob Ross and his painting method began in 2015 when Twitch.tv launched Twitch Creative. Kowalski explained, “Twitch decided they wanted to open a new channel called Creative. They noticed that kids that played video games and that make their own video games were very talented artists.” Landscapes were often used in the video games and landscapes is what Bob Ross was all about. Twitch wanted their Creative channel to be launched with a Bob Ross marathon that was schedule around his birthday (October 29). That was just over a week of Bob Ross, 24/7.
Although the Comic-Con Museum isn’t officially open, Kowalski said there is a possibility that the Bob Ross Experience will come to San Diego’s Balboa Park this October–just in time for what would have been Ross’ 77th birthday. Kowalski wants classes on the main exhibition floor so that people can watch individuals go through the process and successfully complete their paintings. The visitors could view the numerous paintings produced by Ross on the walls in between observing the class. “It’s unbelievable what people can do with these fast easy steps,” Kowalski exclaimed. The Ross style is decidedly unfussy, using large brushes and palette knives. Kowalski noted that a “big black triangle” may look weird, but “if you watch long enough, you can’t believe it will become a mountain. If you’re not watching, you’ll miss all the fast and easy steps.” She admits that his style “contradicts what traditional artists want you to think is art,” but she finds that the “snarky” attitude has softened somewhat over the years. The Bob Ross method can be a gateway to other creative and artistic explorations.
“Younger people like it because it’s kind of goofy and fun,” Kowalski added. She also noted that Ross “lets you be whatever you want to be.” He might paint a big purple tree and it’s beautiful and then say, “not everyone thinks this tree should be purple but I do.” That kind of sentiment makes “people start feeling comfortable enough” to start exploring on their own.
Kowalski hopes that if an exhibition opens at the Comic-Con Museum that the Bob Ross painting classes will be “part of the exhibit” because those students “learning to paint for the first time” becomes “a moving exhibit of 20 people painting.” They’ve done this before at Twitch-Con and South by Southwest where people would be gathered around the student painters 5-6 people deep. “Bob doesn’t change. It’s just that more people are learning about him.”
On the SDCC exhibition hall, my fellow Ebert writer, Nell Minow spied at Bob Ross Chia Pet. Kowalski would have been proud because if there is an exhibit at the Comic-Con Museum, she expects that besides supplies like the brushes, they’ll bring “licensed items that are fun and popular like the Chia Pets and Bobble Heads.” Bob Ross Distribution now also has an official YouTube channel. You might not be able to buy a Bob Ross original painting (as detailed by the New York Times), but you can still have the Bob Ross experience.