Poets Watching TV: What Bob Ross Taught Me About "Indication"

Some Happy Little Creativity Tips

Welcome back to Poets Watching TV, a feature at PopPoetry, a poetry and pop culture newsletter & blog written by Caitlin Cowan. If you like what you read and want it in your inbox weekly, subscribe so you won’t miss a post.

You know Bob Ross. There’s no way that you don’t know Bob Ross. He’s everywhere: on television, t-shirts, party favors… you name it. The Bob Ross empire is vast and profitable, but the man behind that empire seems as affable and gentle as a sweet old golden retriever. Bob Ross was a staple of my childhood and so many others, and his painting instruction continues to touch countless lives.

Ross’s voice and demeanor are soothing. At the last brewery my boyfriend and I went to before the pandemic, all the TVs were tuned to The Joy of Painting. It was a great vibe, sitting there with the quiet clink of glasses and Ross’ whispery instruction floating down from the mounted television screens. Mountains and trees and bodies of water rose from his brush like it was nothing. Though we both love to sit and talk to one another, we sat there in silence, watching the show and soaking in Ross’s aura, even though we’d both seen the show innumerable times.

Sometimes when I watch Bob Ross I play the poetry game. In other words, I pretend he’s talking about poetry, not painting, to see what kind of creative insights I might be able to glean. As I mentioned in my first Poets Watching TV post, This game works with various disciplines, but for obvious reasons, I’ve chosen poetry. There are so many things to be learned from Ross, his wet-on-wet technique, his use of the natural world as his primary subject matter, and more. But the thing that first switched on my this-could-be-true-of-poetry-too lightbulb is a subtle painting technique and way of reframing the “job” of the painter.


I frequently notice in Ross’s instruction that he talks about “indication” or “indicating” something visually. What he means is that you can give the merest suggestion of something and have it stand in for something much more complicated or detailed.

Ross uses this word many, many times throughout his public access oeuvre. Take, for example, his Red Sunset painting in the video below. Check out the cabin he’s painting with a palette knife and what he says about it around 24:40.

He instructs viewers to give “indications” of the kind of wood on the façade of the cabin by placing thin vertical lines of black paint across its front. The lines are so simplistic that they aren’t meant to convey the nuance and detail of reality: they’re meant to suggest to the viewer what’s really there. It’s up to the viewer to interpret the indication into a fuller idea of what’s there or what the artist “sees.”

Whenever I hear Ross use the term “indication,” whether it’s a little scratch for the center branches of a bush or a fan-brushed suggestion of a tree far in the distance, I think of two things when playing the poetry game:

Tip 1: Realism doesn’t have much to do with reality.

The vast majority of Ross’s paintings are realistic landscapes. And though he honed his craft painting the vistas of Alaska when he was stationed there during his time in the Air Force, most of Ross’s paintings are not always tied to an actual location that could be pinpointed on a map. The paintings he shows viewers how to create on The Joy of Painting are realistic—the trees look like trees, and the sunsets look like sunsets—but they are not reflections of real, specific places. Rather, they are amalgams of the idea of a tree or a sunset, or of all trees and sunsets Ross has ever seen, you might say.

Of course, no painting is an actual copy of reality. Photography comes closest, but even photographs don’t reflect “reality” because they’re shaped by an artist’s lens and point of view (not to mention post-processing techniques of all kinds and their effects on the subject and therefore on viewers).

This isn’t to say that other painters don’t do this or know this. But I’m fascinated by Ross’s use of the term because he’s a public arts educator. He’s also making something beautiful in limited time on television, a genre of TV that has exploded in recent years and creates a lot of fodder for the poetry game and for creative thinking.

In this way, his realistic paintings that use indication as a major technique are flashpoints for discussions about articulating “the real” in art.

Tip 2: If you give your reader or viewer an inch, they’ll take a mile, and that’s a good thing.

Indication is a kind of collaboration between the artist and the viewer, or in our case, between the writer and the reader.

The act of interpretation itself is meaningful. Controversially (maybe?) I think attempting to figure out what something “means” is just as significant as sussing out the “real” meaning (whatever that is) or understanding the most commonly accepted meaning(s) of a piece of art. And so indication invites readers and viewers in to co-create meaning with the artist: here’s the suggestion of a tree… your brain will have to recognize this as a tree. In poetry, this might look like, “Here are several words that feel dark and heavy in the space of a single stanza… you might recognize this as a poem about depression.” Some poets might rather simply say, “I am depressed.” But there’s more artistry to the latter, in which subtler techniques allow us to collaborate with the artist.

Spelling out exactly what you see or exactly what you mean in a painting or a poem disinvites the viewer or reader from collaborating with you. The point of art is not solely to express one’s viewpoint with 100% total clarity: that’s just a statement. To my mind, art requires something else of us: it asks us to see in new ways, multiple ways, unfathomable ways, and indication allows us to do just that.

One tiny detail in a poem or painting can send our brains spinning into the ether, and that’s one of the best things about indication (and about our brains, and about art).

In Practice

I’ve shown just one instance of Ross’s use of this term, and there are countless others. If you’re interested in putting this idea into a kind of practice, consider relaxing with some Bob Ross on YouTube, then try your hand journaling with one of the following prompts and/or using one of the writing prompts below.

  • How can I incorporate small details that readers can build worlds, characters, or understandings from?

  • What elements in my work are drawn from my memories and imagination, and which are drawn more faithfully from life? Do I approach these elements differently?

  • How is “indication” different than or similar to metonymy? To metaphor?

  • Write a list of small details in your living space that can “indicate” the larger elements of your life. Then, write a poem using just one and building from it.

  • Try out a persona poem: these are typically “realistic” but are not, ultimately, real, like Ross’s trees. How can you indicate the humanity of your character in a few short words?

  • Look up a favorite painting of yours online or visit a museum (following all best practices for COVID safety). Spend some time with the piece and ask yourself if the painter has attempted to “indicate” things to you, the viewer. What are they? Write quickly in a stream-of-consciousness fashion about all the things you’re able to extrapolate from those indications. Use your notes to construct a polished ekphrastic poem from it later, when you are away from the painting.

Words of Caution: The Cult of “Relatability”

The kind of painting techniques that Ross uses can speak to poetry in powerful ways because so much of his art is based on recognizable forms: cabins, mountains, lakes. We want our poems to be recognizable as utterances from human beings, no matter how strange or fantastical. Generally speaking, we want our readers to understand our work and recognize something in it that reminds them of themselves, of other people, or of life on earth. But sometimes focusing on recognizability in our culture can lead to sanitized, homogenous, white, cis-hetero patriarchal tastes ruling the day.

What’s harder, and what art is so great at, is creating understanding and empathy for people with whom you share very little.

My creative writing students sometimes attempt to praise a work by calling it “relatable.” The slang utterance “same” or “hard same” and the entirety of meme culture, in some ways, is built upon the slippery premise of reliability, but it behooves us to ask for whom is X relatable? And it must be said that if we were going to entertain the idea that reliability was a virtue, then Bob Ross’s mostly unobjectionable paintings of idyllic landscapes are the epitome of relatable. Trees! Cool, dude.

But empathizing with people, things, and situations we recognize or have personally experienced is easy. What’s harder, and what art is so great at, is creating understanding and empathy for people with whom you share very little. It’s neither necessary nor desirable to see ourselves in everything we read, see, or consume. The purpose of poetry is not to create something bland enough for any reader to understand (the job of greeting cards, perhaps, or soap opera plots).

Though there is certainly something troubling and flattening about the cult of “relatability,” the way Ross uses indication is a kind of rhetorical shorthand that reminds us to give readers a way into poetry without prescribing to them exactly how they should see or interpret something.

Sometimes I like to think of poetry as an attempt to paint a picture in someone else’s mind. Fiction and other kinds of prose can do this too, but sometimes those forms are more focused on conveying a narrative or information. Poetry, however, has a long and historic investment in image, which makes painters and paintings good subjects of study for poets.

This puts me in mind of O’Hara’s famous “Why I Am Not a Painter,” in which a poet (the speaker) and a painter grapple with what to leave in and what to take out of their work, what works of art are supposed to “mean,” and their own relationship to the subject matter and to their identities as artists. In the end, title be damned, O’Hara uncovers more common ground with the painter than he would like to admit.

I hope your results are as dreamy, as colorful, as moving as paintings. Happy writing, and happy watching. Now go enjoy some happy little trees with our friend Bob.

P. S.

  • Kate Durbin has penned a collection of poetry called Hoarders, which takes its inspiration from the reality TVshow.

  • The 14th-century verse epic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is getting a big-budget reboot starring Dev Patel, and it looks awesome.

  • Ohio went with cash prizes, and Kentucky with a shot at free college tuition. Arizona is going with poetry as an incentive to get vaccinated that they hope will also boost support for vaccination overall.

What does The Joy of Painting make you think about, as a creative person or otherwise? I’d love to hear from you in the comments. And if you know someone who might enjoy this post, consider sharing it or subscribing yourself.

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