For a few brief hours on Tuesday, beloved painting instructor Bob Ross was a trending topic on Twitter, under the website's 'hip-hop' category. Unfortunately, it wasn't because the late painter once dropped a diss track about his PBS predecessor Bill Alexander, and it wasn't because of his always fire chambray-and-denim fit.
Like a lot of other things that no one completely understands, Ross' brief appearance on social media was caused by Kim Kardashian West. Yesterday morning, Kardashian West shared a photo of a landscape painting on Instagram, a cool-hued mountain scene with a deep blue river meandering peacefully through the foreground. "My little artist North," Kardashian West wrote and, sure enough, the signature in the painting's bottom corner is a small 'North,' handwritten beside a smiley face.
The response to the painting was... well, it was absolutely bonkers. While some were content to compare it to the landscapes that Ross taught during every single episode of The Joy of Painting, others just flat-out argued that a 7-year-old couldn't possibly have painted anything that looked so good. (It's honestly a nice painting. I originally wanted to write this with the angle of "Can I Paint Better than a 7-Year-Old," but wasn't ready to acknowledge the truth that no, I cannot.)
Instead, VICE reached out to a couple of experts to ask if this painting really could've been completed by an elementary school art student. "One of the reasons that kids' paintings look like kids' paintings is that children don't have any patience," Sarah Iepson, a professor of art history and chair of the Art Department at the Community College of Philadelphia said.
"You give them paint and paper and they go to town, they have fun, and of course the painting is going to come out looking like a 7-year-old did it. But if you sit a child down and walk them through it step-by-step, they could do [a painting like North's].
In response to the Twitter critics—who seem to have taken a break from being constitutional law scholars and armchair epidemiologists in favor of being art historians—Kardashian West later clarified that's pretty much what happened: North has been taking a "serious oil painting class" with her best friend, and that she completed the painting over the course of several weeks. "As a proud mom, I wanted to share her work with everyone," she wrote on Instagram.
Of course a mom is going to say that (moms will also look at a handmade macaroni necklace and act like they've raised the David Yurman of elbow noodles) but in this case, she's not wrong. "If Kim Kardashian had said 'Oh my god, I left my daughter in her room for an hour and this is what I saw when I came back,' that would be a different story," Iepson added. "But [North] worked on this for weeks with her teacher, and yes, it's still good for a 7-year-old. She clearly is a young woman who took her time, listened to the directions and followed them, and she may have some artistic skill built into that."
Geoff Barnes, an artist and former painting instructor at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) agrees with that assessment. "The first thing I thought when I looked at the painting was oh, Bob Ross," he said. "It's impossible to know what's going on creatively in this child based on one painting, but a 7-year-old could totally absorb the process, follow the process, and come to this kind of result."
When asked to evaluate the work on its artistic merits, Barnes said that North had done a solid job painting the bark on the two trees in the left foreground. "This is really skillfully handled," he added. "I don't have trouble believing that a 7-year-old could do this, but I also don't think this is garden-variety 7-year-old imitation."
Iepson also mentioned West's tree quality. "I really love the atmospheric mist that seems to be floating at the bottom of that mountain," she said. "That's beautifully done. There's a really nice tonal contrast on the trees, and that does strike me potentially, as something that she chose to do. She would've chosen how much of that light brown and yellow to put on those trees and, in my opinion, she chose the right amount and created a nice effect. I would say that some of her choices feel really good."
On Tuesday night, a TikToker named Camryn Frederickson added her thoughts to the debate, because she said that her mother is North's painting teacher. "I actually can't believe right now that I am being put in the position where I am probably one of the only people in the world who has evidence to prove that Kim is not lying," she said on TikTok, before sharing a picture of herself at seven, proudly sitting beside a similar landscape painting.
"My mom taught me how to paint this, and she taught North how to paint the same one just two weeks ago," Frederickson continued. "She's been an art teacher for thirty years, and everyone that comes to her art classes goes through this exact same painting when they're starting out."
Interestingly, Iepson said that not every beginning painter starts with landscapes, which is what makes Bob Ross's approach (and perhaps North's teacher's approach) an interesting one. "I think what [Ross] was doing very often was simplifying, finding tricks and ways around the technical skill that would be needed to paint," she said.
"What Bob Ross realized is that painting is wonderful and people like to create things. It makes people happy, and they can hang a painting on their wall and look at it and feel satisfied—so why not make it easy for them to be able to do that? I think that was his theory, was that he was bringing art creations to the masses in a way that didn't require them to have any real trained skill."
Kardashian West has added several more Instagram stories, standing up for North's talent and defending her enthusiasm for her daughter's art. (And, let's be real: it sucks that people are dragging her for being a supportive parent.) "How dare you see children doing awesome things and then try to accuse them of NOT being awesome," she wrote. "Please stop embarrassing yourselves with the negativity and allow every child to be GREAT!!! NORTH WEST PAINTED THAT PERDIOTDDDDDABCDEFGZFDT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! [sic]"
According to Barnes, support is part of what a young artist needs. "I tried to teach my sons to paint, and I made the mistake of trying to push them too hard in a formal direction when they weren't ready," he said. "What they needed was for me to join them in their interest in whimsy, rather than trying to get them to be better craftspeople, so I screwed them all up. With my daughter, I'm doing much better and taking a much lighter approach [...] But yeah, I would've been really happy, and happy for them, if they had made something like this."