Sat. Feb 4th, 2023

I’m a Londoner and that’s why I didn’t grow up with Bob Ross. Through the power of the internet, I had a vague, low-level awareness of him. I’d seen meme pictures of the man with the ridiculous hair and funny tree paintings, so I knew he was on some sort of TV show. Furthermore, I had no appreciation for the man, nor for his TV show, The joy of painting.

I’m sure I could have tracked down his shows on YouTube – his official channel has a lot of episodes available – but I never really had any interest in them; why should i care? I’m not that interested in oil paintings – or at least I didn’t think so. However, my interest was piqued by Twitch’s Joy of painting marathon that kick-started the launch of Twitch’s new “Creative” streaming. I am an avid Twitch viewer and watch professionally for many hours Dota 2 tournaments and casual Dota 2 stream. I was curious to see how the Twitch community would react to something that wasn’t regular Twitch fare.

Twitch, or at least the parts of Twitch I watch, has its own peculiar subculture. Twitch chat is filled with meme and thrives on repetition. Twitch has its own library of emoticons used to spam chat. The Kappa face Kappa, denoting sarcasm, is the iconic image. The crying BibleThump BibleThump is my favourite. The whole ecosystem is full of repeated phrases (copy paste) and shared jokes. It is occasionally amusing, often utterly nonsensical, and often descends into crude sexism.

Twitch streams also tend to follow a pattern: commentary on pro games is loud and bombastic (think WWE), every soundtrack is dubstep, and loud, gaudy on-screen notifications usually pop up every time a streamer releases a new subscriber or receives a donation.

This environment seemed so hostile to any kind of creativity that I needed to tune into the marathon, no matter what it was, just to see how Twitch would react.

Utilities? I’m so glad I did.

Bob Ross is a beautiful human being and his untimely death is a cosmic injustice. The joy of painting is a truly delightful show, and Twitch has remarkably helped me enjoy it even more. There are only a few days left, but I implore you all to tune in and watch.

I didn’t immediately appreciate the title of the show; I thought it was just another art show. I had, of course, seen art shows before. The one from my childhood was the one from the BBC Heartbeat, presented by Tony Hart with his frankly hurtful theme tune, but it was very much a youth show. While Tony Hart’s demeanor, I think, had more than a little in common with Bob Ross’s – the same softly spoken tone and ASMRish intonation – the show as a whole was brighter, louder and faster than anything I’ve seen on Twitch . . Just listen to that great theme song to get a feel for the tone and style of the show.

But Bob’s show isn’t an art show, not really. It’s about the sheer joy Bob Ross gets from painting, and the pleasure he gets from sharing that joy with others. It has a generosity of spirit that you just don’t see very often, especially on TV or the Internet. He wants us to grab some brushes and paints ourselves and experience his elation. As he says more than once: “If painting does nothing else, it should make you happy.” Painting makes Bob Ross happy, and he wants us to be too. As the show goes on, that attitude even spreads beyond painting, as Bob shows us little birds and squirrels and other animals that he’s helped with.

Bob Ross in action.
Enlarge / Bob Ross in action.

If there’s joy in painting, there’s even more in empowering others to be creative themselves: Bob Ross’ joy is most palpable when he shows the paintings that other people have photographed and sent to him, or when he meets painters who are inspired by his technique.

Bob’s style of presentation is itself endlessly endearing and so un-Twitch-esque. The contrast is great; although the stream is essentially uninterrupted, an ad is shown on the first tune. Twitch’s ad inventory is limited and the most important ones in rotation right now are loud and explosive Halo 5 ad, a wildly annoying Pandora ad, and a largely stupid GEICO ad. After these bold, brash intrusions, we are confronted by Bob’s calm, quiet, soothing tones, and we immediately begin to relax.

Despite this, the Joy of painting marathon has found a steady Twitch audience. The stream rolls along at 40,000 to 50,000 viewers, peaking somewhere north of 60,000. And through the power of Twitch chat, it has become more than a few tens of thousands of people watching a charming TV series at home; it has become a few tens of thousands of people watching it together in a shared experience.

Bob Ross Twitch has developed his own memes. If you’re watching a marathon, especially from a show that has as many episodes as The joy of painting, the little patterns and habits become much clearer. Ross, of course, is known for his happy little trees, happy little clouds, and mantra that there are no mistakes, just happy little accidents. These themes are all there, but more is carried over into the Twitch chat, tweaking and updating aspects of gaming culture and traditional Twitch culture. Mixing Alizarin Crimson and Phthalo Blue to make purple and lavender always warns us to use much more crimson than blue because blue is more powerful. So naturally every time this happens the chat is filled with complaints saying “BLUE OP, PLS NERF”. When the basic structure of the painting is changed in any way, such as using paper cutouts to frame photographs, cries of “New meta!” flood.

At the end of each episode, everyone signs off with a “ggwp;” not the usual ‘good game, well played’ but of course ‘good game, well painted’.

Bob Ross-specific responses have even been developed. He cleans his brushes and bangs them on his easel to knock the paint out – “that’s the fun” – usually saying he knocks the devil out. The Audience Response: Hundreds of Lines “RIP DEVIL.” Even if he doesn’t participation he defeats the devil, that’s still the answer. We know how to react. “RIP DEVIL.”

Whenever he lays a bold, thick Van Dyke Brown line across one of his mountains or trees, the chat immediately fills with cries of “RUINED”. And yet, as the lines turn into new trees, as their foliage, branches and trunks develop and become integral, essential parts of the picture, there are immediate calls to ban him from VAC (Valve’s anti-cheat system used for his games ). Bob’s clutch saves must certainly be evidence of hacking.

And every now and then there is a more heartfelt moment. Bob talks about how grateful he is that people are watching and letting him into their lives, or he talks about the annual events in New York’s Central Park where he meets his viewers, or he talks about the animals he feeds. These moments of heartfelt emotion are met with a deluge of BibleThumps. There’s an added poignancy to Bob’s reflections on his own life and how happy he is to be alive.

One of Bob Ross' little animal friends.
Enlarge / One of Bob Ross’s little animal friends.

The Twitch chat isn’t all good, mind you. Occasionally Bob would have guests in the studio to film an episode, and the women among them would get some particularly unpleasant comments. This is a queer mix of tasteless, offensive and, given the 20-30 year lag between the recording of their shows and their streaming, hugely pointless. The time lag also delivers a degree of innocent humor; people asking why Bob isn’t responding to chat, for example, or not reading out subscriber names.

But overall I think it’s a positive experience. As cynical as the internet can be, I think the affection for Bob Ross and the emotional response to the marathon are genuine. Even if you start watching out of sheer curiosity or for retro-cool tongue-in-cheek mockery, it’s impossible not to be drawn to Bob Ross’ captivating sincerity. We’re living in Bob’s world, at least for a few more days, and it’s a beautiful, happy, uplifting world. Bob brought us together and together we enjoy this great man’s gift to the world, basking in his serenity, sharing in his joy, touched by his teachings. Many of these temporary residents of Bob’s world are already worried about what they’re going to do when the stream is over. How will they fill the void in their lives that will be created by Bob’s departure? For them, and for me, it will be a period of mourning.

Have fun painting and god bless you.

Press F to pay respect.
Enlarge / Press F to pay respect.

By akfire1

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