Copied Little Accidents

Back in the 1980s and 1990s there was a painter by the name of Bob Ross who ran a delightful television show on PBS called The Joy of Painting. Bob Ross used an extremely fast wet-on-wet technique of oil painting in which he would paint a beautiful landscape painting in realtime during his half-hour show. He would talk to the audience in one of the most calm voices a human being has ever been given, and talk about how we’re making whatever world we want and that there are no mistakes here, just happy little accidents.

What I discovered recently was that not only did Bob Ross not invent the quick painting technique he used, he didn’t even invent the happy little accidents. Now, to be clear, this was not something that Bob Ross tried to hide. In fact, he credited his mentor. He mentioned that he got the technique from Bill Alexander in the first episode of the first least, and he dedicated the first episode of the second season to Bill Alexander:

Bill Alexander didn’t invent the concept of painting wet-on-wet with oil paint; that dates back hundreds of years. What Bill Alexander did was to create the technique of making landscapes using wet-on-wet techniques involving large brushes and a strong pallet knife so as to be able to paint a landscape in half an hour.

But Bill Alexander didn’t just invent the technique. He also taught it on his own PBS show. It was called The Magic of Oil Painting and ran from 1974 to 1982. (The Joy of Painting started in 1983, so Bob Ross was continuing what his teacher did, he wasn’t competing with him.)

It’s interesting to watch an episode of Bill Alexander’s show, as you can see that Bob Ross did copy quite a lot of it:

Bill Alexander was born Wilhem Alexander in 1915, in Germany. He was drafted into the Wehrmacht in World War 2 but was captured by the Allies and, after painting portraits of officers’ wives, made his way to the United States where he took up residence after the war was over.

He had the same positive attitude, looking at mistakes as things you just roll with and learn how to use. He was not as soft-spoken, and his German accent makes things sound more harsh than they were, which brings us to an interesting point: it is very rare that an innovator becomes famous for his innovations.

This is a pattern that ones sees the world over, and throughout history. The peculiarities and genius needed to come up with an idea that no one has had before—or at least no one in one’s culture has had before—is rarely compatible with that common touch which really helps to make it intelligible to the public at large. It is extremely common, then, that the innovator’s invention is made famous by someone who is just strange enough to understand the new idea but not strange enough to have come up with it on his own, but his not being strange enough to come up with the idea is what makes him able to communicate it to people who aren’t at all strange.

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