Move over Attenborough: why Bob Ross's art lessons are TV's ultimate stressbuster

It might sound unlikely, but The Joy of Painting – a kitsch, gentle show from the 80s which returns to TV this week – is the ultimate antidote to the trials of the modern world

Vice’s TV channel has always been a decidedly patchy thing to watch. For every truly brilliant show it has – Action Bronson’s Fuck, That’s Delicious remains a contender for the best food show going – there are dozens and dozens of tiresome hipster documentaries that can’t work out whether they’re supposed to be ironic or earnest, or how smart their audience is meant to be. What it really needs in its schedule is something completely dependable.

The good news is this isn’t far off. From today, the channel is airing two back-to-back episodes of The Joy of Painting daily. If you haven’t seen it, you might be wondering why a 30-year-old show about one man quietly painting one landscape after another in a black studio deserves so much attention. But if you have, you’ll know. The Joy of Painting was a very, very special television programme. It is something everybody needs in their lives.

So, for the uninitiated, The Joy of Painting follows Bob Ross – a softly spoken man with big hair – as he gently explains various wet-on-wet oil painting techniques while completing a painting, usually of a tree-covered mountainside. The mood is calm and unruffled, and the closest thing to tension comes when you think that Ross has finished the perfect painting, only for him to suddenly decide it needs a waterfall. It is simplicity itself.

For a show that ran from 1983 to 1994, The Joy of Painting is very easy to describe in modern terms. Ross’s voice, which rarely raises from a whisper, feels like a prototypical autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). His total concentration on the task at hand feels like mindfulness. His mantra – that there are no mistakes, only happy accidents – sounds a lot like an inspirational Instagram quote. There is a meditative quality to The Joy of Painting that cannot be overestimated. It is an exhalation. It is an antidote. You can physically feel your brain unclench as you watch it.

And for such a simple show, its appeal is enormously broad. A while ago, on a rainy weekend afternoon, my dad was over and my children were in the middle of their traditional weekend pursuit of trying to murder each other as loudly as possible, and everyone was getting more and more stressed. As a last resort, I found a Bob Ross show on Netflix and put it on. My dad is 70. My youngest child is two. Everyone stopped and watched it. The mood immediately lifted. The only other thing that has ever had this effect has been a David Attenborough documentary, and I would argue that this is better because you know you won’t be ambushed by footage of a lion ripping a gazelle’s head off.

When you start watching The Joy of Painting – and I sincerely hope you do – you are going to start wondering about Bob Ross, a figure of such monumental placidity that that you will become convinced he is hiding some sort of hideous dark secret. But apparently that is not the case. The Bob Ross mythology is basically this: he joined the army at 18 and was posted to Alaska, where he developed a reputation as a fearsome master sergeant with the nickname Bust ‘Em Up Bobby. But this didn’t sit well with him, and he vowed that as soon as he left the military, he would never raise his voice again. And he didn’t. Ross was a private man, even keeping the cancer that killed him a secret to all but his closest family and friends, and this mystique has only helped to fuel his myth.

Given that Tom Hanks was just Oscar nominated for playing Fred Rogers in a film, I wonder if a Bob Ross biopic will be far off. He certainly seems to share the same quiet calm and innate sense of goodness as Rogers. But, even if that never happens, we still have The Joy of Painting. Just try one episode. You’ll thank me for it.

The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross is on VICE from 2 Mar, 7.50pm


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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