The Joy of Painting, television’s gateway to learning for the self-taught artist

The Custer Fight by C.M. Russell, 1903.

Library of Congress
The Custer Fight by C.M. Russell, 1903.
Television programs that taught art lessons have been around since television was invented, with instructors from Jon Gnagy, to Bill Alexander, to Bob Ross.

Television programs that taught art lessons have been around since television was invented, with instructors from Jon Gnagy, to Bill Alexander, to Bob Ross.

Wikipedia

Bob Ross

“Everyone has inherent artistic talent and could become an accomplished artist given time.”

Bob Ross

Over 400 episodes of The Joy of Painting, a popular PBS-produced series featuring the art instruction of American painter Bob Ross (1942-1995) aired on North American TV stations from 1983-1994. By his own estimation, Ross completed more than thirty thousand paintings, many of them demonstrations of his ‘how-to’ paint alla-prima, the wet-on-wet technique in oil he learned from his mentor, Bill Alexander (1915-1997). Alexander preceded Ross with his own TV art instruction program, The Magic of Oil Painting which ran on PBS stations from February 18, 1974, to May 10, 1982. Ross not only studied under Alexander but adopted a similar structure to his TV program, completing a painting in each 30-minute session. Both artists emphasized landscape painting, and Ross is remembered for inserting “happy little trees” as a favorite compositional device.

Ross’ accepting, nonjudgmental worldview is reflected in a frequently repeated statement, “Everyone has inherent artistic talent and could become an accomplished artist given time.” This encouraging attitude came through in his calm, Mr. Rogers-like television persona which has seen a recent revival of interest starting in 2011 with the PBS documentary Bob Ross: The Happy Painter.

In August 2021, Netflix released a more probing documentary called Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed exploring Ross' life, career, legacy, and the controversy surrounding ownership of his artwork and image under the auspices of the husband and wife team Annette and Walt Kowalski. The couple now has controlling interest in Bob Ross, Inc. the company that took possession of all of Ross’ output following his death in 1995. Most recently, Carl Nargle, a fictional character sporting Ross’ characteristic corona of curly permed hair, is featured in the 2023 IFC-produced comedy Paint. The film, loosely based on Ross’ life, is set in Vermont, adding to the homespun appeal of the star, but this feature-length movie has received mixed reviews.

Although he dropped out of school in the ninth grade, Ross found his mission inspiring others to find joy through painting. Episodes of his show still air on various TV outlets and streaming services. Ross’ remains are interred at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Florida under a plaque marked "Bob Ross; Television Artist."

“Jon Gnagy taught me to draw: I watched his show every Saturday morning and bought all of his books.” —Andy Warhol

Art instruction on television did not start with Bob Ross or Bill Alexander. It has been there since the first, small, black & white monitors encased in furniture-like boxes entered American living rooms. Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was a budding artist when television’s original art instructor, Jon Gnagy (1907-1981) hosted You Are an Artist, a show which began on NBC in 1946 and continued on that network until 1950 when it moved to CBS. According to his 1947 instruction book, his TV program "had at this writing by far the longest run of any program emanating from the NBC television studios."

wikipedia

old television sets

Wikipedia

Draw Me matchbook

Gnagy was a self-taught artist most remembered for pioneering the format for learning art by watching television that was mimicked by Alexander and later Bob Ross. In 1950, Gnagy syndicated Learn to Draw, a series of shorter, 15-minute lessons that promoted an art kit that could be purchased. Although the kit was created for the program, it is still available and contains the book Learn to Draw, sketching paper, three drawing pencils, one carbon pencil, three sketching chalks, one kneaded eraser, one shading stump, one sandpaper sharpener, and one laptop drawing surface.

Wikipedia

Draw Me Advertisement

Art Instruction, Inc. survived its competition and became widely recognized through its Draw Me! talent test used in their advertising campaign.

 

These kits included a transparent piece of celluloid that you applied to the surface of the TV screen. It was held on by static electricity. You could draw directly on the screen tracing Gnagy’s lines as he drew in the studio in real-time. Gnagy’s instruction was grounded in his rule of four shapes: “Ball, cube, cylinder, cone…by using these four shapes, I can draw any picture I want and so can you!” This approach was similar to the curriculum used in elementary and high school art programs and continues in some schools today. The Philadelphia-based Martin F. Weber Company still manufactures Gnagy's drawing kits.

Wikipedia

You Can Draw advertisment

Before television, there was Art Instruction, Inc., a mail correspondence course founded in 1914 by Joseph Almars (1884-1948) as the Federal School of Applied Cartooning. It was a branch of the U.S. government's Bureau of Engraving, and the curriculum was geared to train illustrators to serve the needs of the expanding fields of newspaper printing and advertising. Almars also happened to be the head of the Bureau of Engraving and the school employed many talented artists who developed the curriculum and communicated with students across the country. Some are recognized as fine artists as well as illustrators, like C.M. Russell (1864-1926) known for his depictions of the American West in paintings and sculpture, and American neo-classical painter Maxfield Parrish (1870-1986).

Seeing opportunity in the correspondence-by-mail method of art instruction, charismatic illustrator Albert Dorne (1906-1965) and Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) of Saturday Evening Post fame founded The Famous Artists School in 1948. Advertisements stating “Art school for everyone everywhere” ran in the back of popular magazines such as TV Guide and Life. The school attracted a star-studded cast of students including Tony Curtis, Charleton Heston, Pat Boone, and Dinah Shore.

Art Instruction, Inc. survived its competition and became widely recognized through its Draw Me! talent test used in their advertising campaign. Well-known cartoonist Charles M. Schultz, creator of the mega-hit Peanuts, was encouraged by his mother to take the test when he was in high school. He later became an instructor saying, "Art Instruction Inc., was a wonderful place to get started because the atmosphere was not unlike that of a newspaper office. All the instructors were very bright people; they were all ambitious, and each of them had his or her desire whether it was to be a fashion artist, or a cartoonist, or a painter." Art Instruction Schools followed established methods of teaching throughout the decades and started to advertise on television in 2008, but advances in technology and taste outpaced their offerings, and Art Instruction Schools finally closed shop in 2018, leaving behind over a century-long legacy of influence and inspiration.

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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