The Joy of Writing (With Bob Ross)

I wanted to paint like Bob Ross. I used to watch his show, The Joy of Painting, every day after school. He fascinated me, and there was nothing more relaxing after a hard day at school than listening to his voice. It turned out that I had talent as a painter, and my favorite landscapes still decorate my apartment.

Of course I chose to follow my love of writing, and painting, along with music, acting, and my other artistic talents, became hobbies rather than callings. I don’t regret the choice. Writing is my life, the only true constant. It keeps me sane (sort of).

Last month, The Joy of Painting came onto Netflix, and I got sucked in all over again. This time, I’m watching it as an adult, and I notice so much more than as a teen. With 16 years of professional writing under my belt, I also see how his techniques aren’t very different from mine. There’s a lot you can learn about writing from Bob Ross. May you’ll pick up something new.


Prepare Your Canvas:

I used to think that Bob did everything as the show went on and he had some ability I’d never understand to just create without planning. I ignored the part in the beginning when he tells the audience about how he prepared the canvas (usually with a coat of Liquid White or Liquid Clear to make the paint flow, but sometimes with contact paper or Gesso). He also said in a few episodes that his ideas don’t come as he paints. He thinks about what he wants to do for days before each show.

If you want beautiful, magical things to happen when you start writing, you have to prepare the canvas. Take notes, sketch out characters, outline your story, and THINK before you write. If you want your writing to flow as smoothly as Bob’s paint over the canvas, you have to start with a general idea and preparation. Otherwise you’ll be agonizing over each word or going off on tangents that make no sense.

That said…

Blend On the Canvas:

Bob worked by starting with brighter colors on his palate and blending them on the canvas, mixing with the liquid white or clear until he found the hue and colors that he wanted. He played with the color, unafraid of making mistakes because he knew that he could blend them away. This was the magic of his “wet on wet” technique.

Once you’re prepared for your story (or essay, article, etc) don’t be afraid to edit and play with words and structure. There’s always a backspace button, so there’s no need to be afraid that something is permanent. I often rewrite a sentence three or four times (not to mention the editing afterwards). The first thing a person writes down is rarely the best thing. Write it, look at it, and blend it until it’s exactly what you want to say.

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Work In Layers:

Part of Bob’s signature style was the depth of his landscapes. He achieved this by “working in layers.” First he would lay down a base or shadow color. On top of that he would add highlights. By doing this, he would create the illusion of depth, and he always made sure not to overwhelm the piece with highlights. To paraphrase him, it’s easy to go crazy with the highlights, but then you lose all of the beautiful shadows.

One of the major issues I see with my students and beginning writers is that their work lacks depth. Maybe the characters are one-dimensional, or maybe the setting lacks detail. Maybe the plot is predictable (although this is less of a problem than you might think). There is very little going on between the lines (or in the lines) and it makes me want to put the story down.

Remember that you need that shadow color in order to make the highlights stand out. Most of it won’t be seen by the reader, but they will be just enough there to make your story pop instead of fizzle. I find that the easiest way to do this is through note taking. I take notes before I write and during the process. Most of the time it’s something little, like a habit a character might have, or an underlying theme and metaphor. Do as you like and love your bright spots, but remember the shadows.

bob ross happy little tree

No Mistakes, Just Happy Accidents:

This is probably Bob Ross’s most famous catch phrases, but I feel that it’s misinterpreted. He doesn’t leave in things that he doesn’t like, rather he uses them as an opportunity for something new. If he doesn’t like the way part of a cloud looks, you can be sure that “a big ol’ tree” will end up in front, adding another layer of depth to the painting.

Think of your “mistakes” as opportunities and consider having a separate document with scenes and lines that you decide not to use. Sure, you can edit them out, I do it all the time, but also see if it jolts something in your imagination. I always make sure to save the best stuff is an alternate file. Some of my favorite scenes–even main characters– in my stories have come from errors or moments when my words got away from me, and they’re sometimes from completely unrelated stories.

But keep in mind…

It’s Your World, and You Can Do What You Want:

I noticed while rewatching The Joy of Painting that he says this in almost every episode. Despite the seemingly free-form appearance of his show, Bob Ross was always in control of his paintings. He painted his landscapes as he saw them. He was the master of the painting, not the opposite.

Remember that you are the master of the story. You decide when you let your imagination run, and when to rein it in. But being in control has responsibilities as well. If you’re too tight with plot, it’ll lack energy and life. Too slack and it will run away on you or fall into a hole.

This is the conflict between pantsers and plotters. I am mostly a plotter (and I think that Bob was as well, as I mentioned above, it’s the preparation that makes things flow), but I am not afraid to pants.

This is my general technique: I start with a three act plot, then break that up by plot points, and then by chapters. Then I start writing. From chapter to chapter, i let my imagination go. I start at Point A, know that the chapter needs to end at Point B, and just let it happen, guiding the writing just enough to keep it on track. This gives an opportunity for those “happy accidents” without getting too far away from my plot.

You can use any combination of pantsing and plotting that you’d like, just remember: in the end, it’s your world, not the story’s.

In case you’re wondering, I plotted out the sections titles in advance and then went free form between them. Afterwards, I’ll edit it and add pictures. Obviously, Bob Ross couldn’t edit, but that’s the difference in mediums. Besides, editing is part of the Joy of Writing, sometimes the best part. It’s where you make it shine.

That’s all. Happy writing!

cosmic-cat tripping balls redux