I recently took part in a painting session led by the wonderful Jo Petty, and to say that I was well out of my comfort zone would be an understatement. I haven’t painted anything other than a wall since I was in Grade 7, back when Gerald Ford was president, so picking up a paintbrush and attempting not to destroy a perfectly innocent canvas was daunting, to say the least.
That I emerged with something that was actually recognizable (just about, if you squint) as a sunflower was more a tribute to Jo’s expert guidance and joyous (there’s no other word for it) encouragement than to my artistic abilities. It’s easy to see why countless children have blossomed under her teaching, and embraced the opportunity to create their own works of art.
Jo is spiritual kin to the late, great Bob Ross, he of Joy of Painting fame. All of his TV shows — in which he starts with a blank canvas and finishes with a lovely painting in under 30 minutes — are available on YouTube, and I often find myself pulling one up and playing it in the background while I work at my computer, which is something I do rather a lot.
“Listening to a painting show?” I hear someone cry. “What kind of craziness is that?” It does sound odd, I admit, but anyone who has ever listened to Bob talk viewers through creating a painting will know how calming a presence he is. You don’t have to watch the show to be soothed by his voice as he talks about alizarin crimson and phthalo blue and van dyke brown, waterlines and fluffy clouds, and of course happy little trees. The place he conjures up is one of joy and imagination, peace and tranquility, beauty and grace.
It’s amazingly comforting, particularly in a world where many things seem to be out of control. In Bob’s world, people don’t make mistakes; they have happy accidents. He frequently tells viewers that they can do whatever they want with their paint and canvas; he is simply there to guide. Do you want mountains in your painting? Bob loves mountains (boy, does Bob love mountains), but he understands perfectly if you don’t; leave them out if that’s what makes you happy.
Anyone who dislikes somewhat folksy charm will probably not find the shows to their liking, because Bob is full of anecdotes about his time living in Alaska, the pets he had as a child in Florida and his mom’s reaction when his snake got loose, and the various wild animals who stray into his path and find a home in his world until they can be released back into the wild. That said, if the sight of a squirrel poking its head out of Bob’s pocket doesn’t make you smile, then you might want to check the place where your heart should be.
He is also unfailingly encouraging. Not only is he convinced that absolutely anyone can paint, he is constantly reassuring his viewers that yes, he means them. I know it’s fashionable in some quarters to sneer at the “everyone gets a medal for taking part” school of thought, but when you’re trying something you’ve never done and feeling more than a little self-conscious about it, you want someone telling you what a great job you’re doing, not someone standing with their hands on their hips and telling you that a six-year-old could produce a better painting than that.
Bob’s world is the polar opposite of the one we see so often on the news these days. It’s a world where humility, kindness, encouragement, and the joy of creating something are celebrated, not seen as weaknesses, and it’s a world I’m more than happy to escape to. Finding it in real life, during the painting session with Jo a few weeks back, was a joy indeed. Hopefully there will be another class, and another unsuspecting canvas, soon. In the meantime, Bob’s world is only a click away.