Craft Before Content, Part One: The Bob Ross Effect

The other night I was at Bar Majestic in Downtown Jersey City with Marinell all set to do some serious Cerise planning and prep work. Above us on a big screen, a video playing––The Joy of Painting, featuring an artist, white button-downed but laid back, with a palette over his left arm and an easel and blank canvas before him. He also had an Afro and beard, and when he lifted his brush to the canvas, it was nothing short of magic!

Of course, this most famous of American artists is none other than Bob Ross, who made a career for himself by painting “happy little trees” with simple dabs of a fan brush. For a good ten minutes, Marinell and I were both enthralled by how effortlessly (and quickly!) he created a barn sitting in a bed of water surrounded by earthy black trees enfolding the area beset by a lovely orange sunset amidst clouds heavy with shadows.

This isn't the painting that mesmerized us, but it's a darn good one, too!

What struck me most was this: there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation in Bob Ross. He felt out the picture in his mind’s eye and fluidly swiped and stroked it onto the canvas, at one with the Tao of his own art. His knowledge of the craft of oil painting, the wet-on-wet technique in particular, must’ve been such that he didn’t have to think about it. He knew how to use every tool in his shed, and by the time the credits rolled, a wonderful piece of commercial artwork was laid out before him.

As writers, we can learn a lot from the Bob Ross method. We spend our early years learning how to comb back a dangling modifier, when to use a gerund phrase and why it’s important to vary our sentences. And we probably hated every minute of it! But without those crucial years of exercise upon exercise, we could never have elevated ourselves to the level of being able to put words down using the tools we’d learned about in college English classes––things like voice, diction, mood and tone that we practice primarily on countless thesis papers. But then we learned literary and plot devices––flashback, nonlinear storytelling, and all the other tools at the disposal of the creative writer and its myriad subtitles––novelist, poet, screenwriter.

You can’t reach a destination in a beat-up Chevy that breaks down every couple hundred miles, but you don’t want to Lamborghini it either ‘cause you’ll miss the journey in between.

The first thing our teachers ever give us to work with in our writing classes is a simple pencil because we’re able to erase our mistakes. And we will make plenty of them! But eventually we graduate to a pen––ink––and with that power of permanence comes a greater responsibility to write what we wish to say well enough the first time. To this day, the only time I use a pencil is during revision, which is the only time I let my second-guessing monster off the leash to tear up my words.

How is it then that some people feel they can skip all that tedious exercise, or worse yet, not pay attention to (or forget) all that basic knowledge gained high school and college writing courses and fast forward to creating their own stories? Much the same way a person can’t climb Mount Everest with arms and legs as thin as twigs, or Bob Ross wouldn’t have risen to his full potential without practicing every day during his brief breaks, a writer can’t tell a compelling story without practicing the craft. The constant act of writing is great for perfecting your story sense, but you have to know how to write well first.

And here’s a two-minute glimpse into the magic that we all can create…as long as we know the right spells! Enjoy!

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