My husband laughs at my love of The Joy of Painting with American painter Bob Ross, which is broadcast on BBC Four in the early evenings. The programmes were originally created and aired in the 1980s and early 90s, and they do look a little dated now (along with Bob’s permed hair!). Additionally, Bob’s paintings – rather cheesy landscapes and snowy scenes – are not the sort of art I’d hang on my walls, but that hardly matters in the context of this article.
Bob is clearly a highly skilled artist. He exudes a quiet self-assurance which comes from confidence in his own techniques, and he uses his materials with a remarkable yet modest dexterity. He knows exactly which brush or palette knife to use to create a specific effect – the silvery bark of a birch tree or reflections on water. Watching a painting emerge from Bob’s palette before your eyes is mesmerising and strangely calming, but that is not the primary reason why I am hooked on these programmes: I am fascinated by Bob’s technique.
Musicians, like artists, need well-developed, secure technique in order to navigate the score and create music. Technique should always serve the art, whether it is painting or performing music; one demonstrates how finely-honed one’s technique is when it is no longer visible – when one plays, or paints, in such a way that it appears fluent and effortless. Bob Ross has mastered his technique to such an extent that we almost forget there is any technique involved at all.
Technical skills like this require consistent nurturing, which is why regular practicing is so important. Mindless note-bashing achieves little; focused, deliberate, deep practice, on the other hand, fosters technical assuredness and artistic mastery.
Through a process of constant reflection and refining during practice, physical and creative obstacles are overcome and one has in place the firm foundations and confidence from which to develop greater artistry. Assured technique also gives us the tools to explore more complex repertoire, a greater sense of intuition when we practice and perform, and the ability to play with greater spontaneity and nuance. The control of nuance will determine the version the performer performs. Much of this nuance will be pre-planned, practiced, memorised and finessed to such a degree that it sounds totally spontaneous in performance, but the rest comes ‘in the moment’ of performance – a genuinely spontaneous, quasi-improvisatory response to interaction between performer and music, performer and audience, the responsiveness of the audience, the performer’s mood and sensibilities, the ambiance of the concert hall, the time of day….It is this kind of musical “sprezzatura” that creates those magical, “you had to be there” moments in live concerts. It cannot be planned in advance – and yet it comes from the performer’s meticulous preparation, their deep knowledge of the music, their technical facility and mastery of their art, and their experience.
No one wants to watch an artist labouring with their work – this is one of the reasons why The Joy of Painting is such a pleasure to watch because Bob makes it look so easy (and he never lets his ego get in the way of the creation of art). Watch a performer like Martha Argerich in performance (a pianist I’ve been lucky enough to hear live in concert on several occasions) and you will see this same effortlessness.