If you came across the Bob Ross painting “Contemplative Lady,” it’s possible — but not likely — that you would notice the artwork uses exactly one color other than Titanium White: Van Dyke Brown. There are a couple reasons why you might know this: 1) your artistic eye is especially discerning, or 2) you got a fleeting look at The Bob Ross Virtual Art Gallery online before the good people at Bob Ross Inc. ordered gallery creator Connor Rothschild to shut it down.
“I was just perusing the Internet, as one does,” Houston-based data visualizer Rothschild explained to GBH News. “And I came across a data set with Bob Ross paintings. And... that's really what kind of ignited that fire for me.”
And so for two months Rothschild did what data scientists do: He worked the data. And in February 2021, he launched his “baby,” The Bob Ross Virtual Art Gallery website, breaking down 31 seasons and hundreds of Bob Ross paintings into their various colors and hues.
The gallery featured all manner of charts and graphs, collapsing into and swooping upon one another as you scrolled down the page. Rothschild began with a “tour” of the colors Ross and his guests used for each of their paintings, and representations that let you identify outliers, like the aforementioned “Contemplative Lady,” or pieces more representative of Ross’s style, like Rothschild’s favorite painting, “Springtime” (Season 22, episode 2). Think of it as a hub for Ross’s work, where you could visualize in data both his process and execution. And, towards the bottom of the site, each painting was housed in a virtual room mimicking that familiar feeling of going to a museum, sitting on a bench, and staring at the beauty on a wall.
A few months after its creation, Rothschild’s website won first place for “standalone multimedia” at the Michigan State University Design Contest for College Students. As Rothschild noted, after the win, his site exploded in popularity. So, it was only a matter of time before the Virtual Gallery’s existence got picked up by Nerdist, and with a little help from Yahoo!, blew up across the internet.
And, it turns out, it was only a matter of time before the keepers of the Bob Ross flame and purveyors of Bob Ross gear got word of the virtual gallery and ordered it shut down. As of publish time, the Bob Ross Virtual Art Gallery remains suspended after Rothschild received a cease and desist order from Bob Ross Inc.
It's definitely been surreal,” Rothschild reflected. “I haven't profited off of this. So I didn't anticipate it being threatening at all to Bob Ross Inc.”
Bob Ross Inc., depending upon your feelings on the matter, can be seen as ardent defenders of the late painter’s legacy (and intellectual property), or gatekeepers whose unyielding oversight is antithetical to the “public” nature of The Joy of Painting.
“Unfortunately, the virtual gallery was not produced by or with permission from Bob Ross Inc.,” wrote Sara Strohl of Bob Ross Inc., in an email to GBH News explaining the legal action against the Virtual Art Gallery. “At this time, Bob Ross Inc. is focused on bringing Bob’s paintings to fans in the form of in-person exhibits, which allow Bob Ross fans to experience Bob’s paintings in a truly unique and meaningful way.”
It should be noted, however, that since 2019 Bob Ross fans have not been able to experience the vast majority of his paintings in either a unique or meaningful way, as they’ve been hidden away in a warehouse in Northern Virginia.
This saga raises a few questions, and tugging on readily available threads doesn't exactly give up too many answers. For starters, consider where Rothschild first came across the data that got him into Ross: Agithub page (which is where data geeks stash and share raw material), produced by computer scientist Jared Wilber, which in turn links to TwoInchBrush.com, a site created by Austrian computer scientist Felix Auer. As Auer puts it, “TwoInchBrush.com is a database listing all Bob Ross Paintings, various guides to get you started with painting, a great search function to help you find your next painting, and a wonderful community you can share your masterpieces with.”
Did we mention it’s also a handy portal to buy Bob Ross brand paint and all sorts of Bob Ross equipment and swag? On Amazon.com?
But just because it appears to be one large, colorful plug, doesn’t mean that’s how it is. Auer created TwoInchBrush as a passion project of his own. He was introduced to Ross’ work in 2015, after viewing a Joy of Painting marathon via Twitch. He started to paint along and got the idea to create a database so individuals could check if they have the necessary paints to follow along with Ross.
And herein lies the question: How does the Virtual Bob Ross Art Gallery passion project get shut down, while another passion project, hosted from Europe, gets to remain live?
Auer has come to the same conclusion as you no doubt have: Bob Ross Inc. benefits from purchases off of those links. Or, as he put in an email to GBH News, “I think they appreciate the reviews about their products and the marketing effect twoinchbrush.com has.”. Auer does as well — though it should be said that TwoInchBrush.com is not affiliated with Bob Ross Inc., and, he said, his decision to use those affiliate links is driven by the need to recoup some of the costs of maintaining such a large site. So, apparently, Rothschild only used what was positioned as publicly available data for a pet project, compiled by a serious Viennese Bob Ross enthusiast.
Bob Ross Inc., the company led by Ross’ former business partners, did not respond to an email asking why one site lives, while the other dies.
And in addition to the why of Rothschild being (at least the public) fall guy, we’re left wondering how galleries and estates will contend with fans and admirers moving forward, especially after more than a year of museums experimenting in the virtual space.
“I think people can attend a virtual art gallery in the medium that I have provided it and take away different insights and different emotions than they would [in] an in-person gallery,” Rothschild asserted. “And I think the two serve different purposes, and at best they could be used to complement one another.”
But the recent Rice grad has another takeaway for himself: ”Be more careful with the data that I work with and to make sure that I have full ownership over the data that I'm using.”