Becoming a Happy Painter
There was something gnawing at Bill. At first, he couldn’t put his finger on it. He had a good job, in fact, a couple of good jobs. He was traveling between two of Canada’s largest cities. His bosses liked him. He even had time to paint and make a little money on the side. Now, it was time to make the most important decision of Bill’s life. It was a decision that many people would love to make but are too afraid to make. Bill decided to become a full-time artist.
Department Stores and Shopping Malls
Bill had an agent who was selling his paintings. Bill didn’t paint a lot, but what he painted sold. Bill’s agent took a high commission, sixty to seventy percent, and that did not leave much for Bill. For that reason he didn’t have much incentive to paint a lot.
One day Bill happened to meet the owner of a hardware store and they started talking about art and artists. When Bill told him he was an artist, the owner asked him to bring some of his paintings to the store. After Bill showed his paintings, the owner invited Bill to set up his easel in front of the store and do demonstrations. This was Bill’s first introduction to painting in public. His demonstrations brought customers into the hardware store. Unfortunately, his agent happened to stop by the store one day. He saw Bill and yelled at him for showing people how he painted. They had a big fight and Bill lost his agent.
A few days later another customer came into the store and watched Bill paint. After a while she came up to him and said that he belonged in a better store. Her husband was an executive with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Hudson’s Bay was one of the biggest department stores in Canada. He allowed Bill to give demonstrations in their stores. This was a big step up for Bill. Many more people became exposed to his artwork. Hudson’s Bay would move Bill around the store depending on where they wanted customers to shop. They even began to promote him to attract more customers. Bill began doing demonstrations in other department stores and one of the first shopping malls in Canada.
Bill loved the shopping malls. He loved clowning around with the people who came to watch and they loved it too. They laughed, applauded and even clowned around with him. People began to follow Bill from mall to mall. Some would bring folding chairs and set them up as if watching a television show. He began to tell stories about himself while he was painting and his audiences ate it up. Perhaps this was where Bill developed the charm and personality that came out so well on his television show. Soon Bill was traveling across Canada and the United States.
The Alexander Method™
It was during Bill’s time in Toronto that he began developing the “Alexander Method™”. He wasn’t earning a lot of money for his art and it took too much time to create each painting. The biggest problem was getting each layer of paint to dry fast enough so he could continue. He knew he needed a way to become more efficient or get out of painting completely.
The first thing Bill did was build a large easel. He felt that everything about his paintings had to be big. So he started using a big brush, a big palette, and a big canvas. Bill also turned to a technique that had been around for over 500 years. ‘Alla prima’ or Wet-on-Wet painting allows the artist to stack layers of paint on top of each other. Bill took the technique to yet another level.
Many artists copied this technique, but only one has improved on it in the last couple of years. Bill’s innovations allowed him to paint faster, not only in his studio but also in his demonstrations. Soon he would be using the same technique to create his marvelous images on his television show. Bill could finally sell his paintings and make what he called ‘a happy buck.’
Bill’s first innovation was to cover the canvas with a thin white paint before any other colors went on. This allowed him to mix colors right on the canvas rather than on the palette. The big brush and the larger canvas made this mixing easy. He called this special paint “Magic” white.
His second innovation was to bring back thick paints. The Old Masters used thick paints with a technique called ‘Impasto’. Bill alternated his layers between thin, thick and thin again. He built three layers of paint on the canvas. Only a thick paint would allow him to do that.
His third innovation was his unique palette knife. At first, he made his palette knife for his students from an ordinary putty knife which he shaped on a bench grinder. A combination of a short and longer blade allowed a lot of flexibility in applying large and small amounts of paint to the canvas.
Bill always believed that people should see how he painted. He was painting a fiddle when a musician came up to him and asked how much Bill would charge for the painting. Bill told him one hundred and sixty dollars. The musician offered sixty. He claimed that Bill was charging too much for a painting that took so little time to create. Bill tried to explain that it took him years to develop his technique. It was no different than a doctor who takes ten minutes to remove an appendix yet charges $2,000. The musician just couldn’t accept that analogy and left without the painting. Bill refused to compromise his beliefs for the almighty dollar. Would you?
Bill’s early years as an artist took a toll on his family life. His constant traveling and demonstrations were disruptive to a normal family life. Margarete wanted him to go back to his job as a printer. Bill didn’t want to give up the opportunity to make his living as an artist. They couldn’t resolve their differences. After their daughter Heidi married, Bill and Margaret broke up. The next few years were, as Bill said, “…times filled with darkness and light — bad and good.” He found another art dealer and dove into painting. He still wasn’t getting much for his work and he began to get discouraged. Then his dealer arranged for Bill’s first exhibition at the impressive Casa Loma house in 1962.
Bill was moving up in the art world in Canada and he began teaching. One of his students was the wife of an influential industrialist. She was paralyzed on one side of her body. However, she wanted to learn to paint more than anything. Bill began working with her. It was slow going, at first, but as time progressed, Aurora began to start moving her crippled fingers. In appreciation, one day, her husband surprised Bill with a big box full of his palette knives. He had taken one of Bill’s knives to his company and had them made by his workmen. He even stamped Bill’s name on the handle. Bill was proud of those knives.
Bill’s teaching success inspired him to open a studio and start his own art school. He had all kinds of students from dentists and lawyers to doctors, housewives and factory workers. Classes were on weekends and would start early in the morning and go until early evening. Bill developed a teaching process where he would paint an entire painting in front of the class and then have them do it. He would walk around the room helping each student as a mentor or coach rather than a professor. He also singled out students who excelled and encouraged them to help others in the class. The recognition was empowering for the student and everyone benefited.
Bill was still having a problem with his “Magic” white. It was cracking and yellowing and that was unacceptable. Bill tried many different formulas and combinations of pigment, oil, turpentine, and dryer. He knew that the oil and mixing the ingredients was important. He tried name brand ingredients. He tried to get other people to mix the paint for him. Still, he was not satisfied. Finally, he met the chief chemist of a large paint company. The chemist did some research for Bill. He discovered some techniques that the Old Masters used in Germany during the Renaissance. They found an oil from Africa that didn’t yellow and dried slower than what Bill was using. Working together they created the perfect formula. Bill, finally, had his “Magic” white.
As Bill’s career blossomed, in Canada, he met a young woman who was the office manager of a private club in Toronto. She was, also, a poet and interested in painting. Her name, too, was Margarete. They hit it off right away and it wasn’t long before she and Bill got married. On their first Christmas, together, Margarete wrote a poem for Bill.
“May our destiny give you fortune,
So that the whole world knows in you
What I know today!”
Bill had found his soul mate – someone who believed in him. It was time for the next big step in Bill’s career.
Chapter Five: Searching for Success
Kasey D says
Hi there. I stumbled across this site as I was researching more on the almighty happy painter.
A long story short, I have acquired Bill’s supplies including brushes, old paints, tons of books (one which has a hand written memo by Bob Ross before their television rivalry. I also have VHS tapes of (I’m guessing )?the original TV recordings. I am trying to find out a way to have these items assessed for value. Could you point me in the right direction? I live on Vancouver isle. Canada
I’ve been given a Bill Alexander painting. It’s 24×48 in a gold frame. The painting is of some birch and other trees on each side and the clearing in the centre looks across a lake. The sky is cloudy. How could I have this valued? I live north of Toronto. Thank you.
I want to find the TV series on CD
For my Dad . He spent hours watching and rewatching the TV show . Then painting picture himself. I want to get him back into painting and . I was hoping to buy the series on line .
Ted Freeman says
When I was a very small child I really loved this man’s shows!!! Imagine my intrigue when I saw the Ross version of his phrases and style years later. I wondered why in the world were there no broadcasts of the originator of this series, and assumed they were some type of supporting partners in the process and the program.
I wish the web was covered with Mr. Alexander’s phrases, attributed to him. It is nice to find this site though; may his memory and innovations live on. So charming!!
Frank Cuffe says
I didn’t think I had any talent for art but with the Master class , I found I can do pretty good . Thanks to Bill Alexander and the instructors at your site even me at 80 can learn.
Joanne Withee says
What source can l use to learn the value of my Bill Alexander painting?
I have a large one of a lone cross country skier on a huge expanse of snow with several trees in the background.
Laurie Anderson says
You can email a photo of your painting to me at email@example.com. I can help you identify the time period and authenticate his signature. There is another artist with the same name that painted in Watercolor, including many skiing scenes so possibly it might not be our Bill Alexander. I’d be happy to see if it is though.
I just want to say thank you for this article. I’ve been trying to find information about Mr. Alexander and this provided quite a bit of what I was looking for!
Matthew Hubbard says
My wife and I so love the spirit of this man.now after reading of his remarkable life and heroic efforts.we are so thankful in these troubled times to feel his hope and presence.peace and love to you all.matt and molly new york usa
Suzanne Sims Salyer says
How can I share photos with you. I have my dad’s Happy Painter pamphlet with he and Mr. Alexander on the cover. It was around 1985. Dad passed away in 1987 from bone cancer. J. Reed “Jim” Sims
Laurie Anderson says
I briefly knew your dad! He and I worked a seminar together once. I really enjoyed him.
The best way to send photos to us is to email them directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
I look forward to what you have to share.
John B Doughton says
Did Bill Alexander do any military USO Shows . Was at Naval station on Adak Alaska mid 60’s and saw possibily Him do a show . Did a blindfold painting in short time ,interesting talker . good stories . he used paint brush to make trees with a couple of motions . fascinating to watch him . He handed out paintings he did for show but was not lucky enough to get one . One of his kids painted a big rose on toilet seat ! A long time ago but memories come up and curious as to who he was . Does this sound like him ?
Laurie Anderson says
This doesn’t sound like Bill. None of his kids painted that I know of.
Thanks for asking,
Christina Nail says
Hello, in have a Litho print of “Prelude to Winter” by Alexander. Are Litho Prints worth anything? I can’t find this one online to see what they sell for.
Laurie Anderson says
I haven’t seen his prints being sold. So I’m sorry I don’t have an answer for you. People do want his paintings but I don’t know about his prints. Is it signed and numbered?
My grandma Gladys was the one who gave bill his start at the Pascals Hardwarematige in Montreal. My mom has two small paintings from this time period with very thick paint on them. Our family has always loved our link to Bills career. My daughter will be starting art school in the fall and she loves Bills work.
Thanks for keeping his work alive!
Richard Spencer says
I would love to see pictures of Bills homestead where his fish farm was. I hear it was beautiful. Any links can be emailed to me… many thanks
Laurie Anderson says
I have some photos somewhere of his place in Powell River where his fish hatchery was. When I find them I will let you know.
Thanks for asking!
PS Richard the first two series that we filmed with Bill in 1986 was done at his Powell River home.
My mother was gifted a beautiful painting of a lighthouse on a rugged coastline. It was a gift for my parent’s wedding in 1963 in Montreal. It was signed by W. Alexander.
I’ve always loved that painting and my husband and I have it in our home.
Just wondering if this is one of Bill Alexander’s paintings. I will take a photo and email to your gallery.
Laurie Anderson says
What a lovely gift!
Please do email it to me.
My email address is email@example.com.
Carol Lopez says
In my opinion, Bob Ross was a swindler. I was a just a kid taking lessons from Bill Alexander in Long Beach California. I met first met him in Cal Store and wanted to be around him as much as I could. He was the kindest man who treated me with respect. I was actually with Bill when he took out a pocket knife and made changes to the handle of the palette knife he designed and made himself. As he whittled he explained why. I was with Bill when he was perfecting his “Magic White.’ He explained that It would crack and yellow over time. It was expensive and took time but he knew he’d get the formula right. He always said, the ‘wet on wet’ technique was what the old masters used. He never said that he invented it. People are lying about that. I loved being around Bill and his wife because of his joy of life. He was unlike anyone i had ever met. The thing is, Bill was too trusting. My parents often talked about how people took advantage of his good nature. Bill often got swindled by people who pretended to want to help him, like Bob Ross. When Bob Ross took credit for Bill’s palette and Magic White formula and even copied Bill’s phrases and persona , I knew what happened. No one will ever change my mind. Bill changed my life and for that I am forever grateful. Oh, Bill said he wasn’t German but Austrian, too.