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Thank You, Jon Gnagy: An Appreciation of a Predecessor to Bob Ross

Ned Stuckey-French | Longreads | November 22, 2016 | 2,204 words

Ned Stuckey-French reflects on the host of “Learn to Draw,” the “middlebrow” instructional art show he loved as a kid.

Posted inEssays & Criticism, Featured, Nonfiction, Story

Thank You, Jon Gnagy: An Appreciation of a Predecessor to Bob Ross

Ned Stuckey-French reflects on the host of Learn to Draw, the “middlebrow” instructional art show he loved as a kid.

Ned Stuckey-French | Longreads | November 2016 | 9 minutes (2,204 words)

Growing up in the early 1960s I watched a Saturday morning television show called Learn to Draw hosted by a man named Jon Gnagy. He sported a neatly trimmed Van Dyke and exuded a comforting mix of calm and enthusiasm. The goatee was offset by a plaid flannel shirt. There was no beret or affected accent. He was artistic but not too artsy. Each show he taught us how to draw something new: a clown, a snow scene, or an ocean liner at dock. His hands flew as shapes and outlines turned magically into pictures. He lay the chalk on its side and shaded in order to achieve “effects” and talked continuously, identifying the light source and explaining the vanishing point.

I tried to keep up, but never could. At the end of each show, Gnagy would slap a frame on his drawing and declare it done, but I had to keep going, working on my version of “Mountain Lake” or “Boy Sledding” into the afternoon, sighing, starting over, and trying again and again to get it right. Hoping it would help, I convinced my mom to order me a Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw Art Kit that included a tablet, pencils, charcoal, kneaded eraser, and guidebook.

I never became an artist, but I like to draw and so does my ten-year old daughter Phoebe. Recently, when she and I were poking around on YouTube, I remembered Gnagy, searched his name, and, though he died in 1981, there he was once again. We clicked “play” and it all flooded back. Johann Strauss’s bouncy “Künstlerleben,” or “Artist’s Life,” is still the opening theme. Gnagy is wearing his plaid shirt, goatee and ready smile. Today’s scene of a boy sledding might look complicated, he says, but it isn’t. If you can draw four simple forms—the ball, cone, cube and cylinder—you can draw anything.

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