It’s Saturday morning and I’m piled on the couch with my kids. All of us are in our pajamas and one of us definitely doesn’t want to be up yet. (Hint – it’s not the kids.) Bob Ross is on the television calmly painting a serene landscape and we are all completely engrossed in the program.
You can easily imagine this scene, can’t you? Because you’ve been there yourself, haven’t you? You have been one of the millions of viewers of The Joy of Painting, watching as the iconic Bob Ross spends 30 minutes using the “wet-on-wet” oil painting technique to transform a blank canvas into a beautiful landscape right before your eyes. A tiny smudge of paint becomes a “happy little cloud” or a “happy little tree” with just a few swipes of his brush.
How does he do it?!?
Bob Ross has been compared to Mr. Rogers because he speaks calmly and offers positive encouragement to everyone. He believes in us and when we truly listen, we begin to believe in ourselves too. But how did this all get started? What is Bob’s backstory?
Bob Ross’s Life Before the Television Show
An Animal Lover From the Beginning
Robert Norman Ross was born in Florida in 1942. He loved animals his whole life and several became pets after he had rescued and rehabilitated them, including squirrels and armadillos. His most famous pet squirrel was Peapod who appeared in several episodes.
An Air Force Veteran
In 1961, Bob enlisted in the Air Force and became a medical records technician. He served for 20 years, rising through the ranks until he became the First Sergeant at the Eielson Air Force Base clinic in Alaska.
Bob Ross Discovers the Wet-on-Wet Painting Technique and Turns His Painting Into a Side-Hustle
While in Alaska he discovered the television show, The Magic of Oil Painting by Bill Alexander, a German painter. Bill Alexander was teaching the “wet-on-wet” technique that became Bob Ross’s painting method of choice. Bob, who was already interested in painting before learning this technique, was suddenly able to create paintings from start to finish in a very short time. He began to paint Alaskan landscapes inside of gold-mining tins during his lunch breaks and then sold them to make some extra money.
His first paintings for sale were repurposed mining tins
Click through for a news story about two of these early mining tin works that were recently sold through an antique store. It includes some great close-ups of the rarely-seen paintings themselves.
After His Retirement from the Air Force, Bob Ross Begins to Teach Painting Classes then Starts His Own Company
After his retirement from the Air Force, Bob moved to Florida to study under Bill Alexander and became a certified instructor for that company. An attendee at one of his classes, Annette Kowalski, convinced Bob to strike out on his own. They became business partners and though they lost a lot of money the first year, they eventually grew their company, Bob Ross, Inc., into a success. In 1983, PBS began airing his show, The Joy of Painting. The show was designed as a way to promote the books and art supplies sold by Bob Ross, Inc.
The show originally aired from 1983-1994 but continues today in syndication on PBS. All of Ross’s shows can also be seen on the official Bob Ross YouTube channel.
Where did all the paintings go?
Bob painted over 1,000 paintings for the show and probably more than 30,000 paintings during his life. But where are they? Where can you go to see them?
Most of the show paintings were either donated to local PBS stations for fundraising auctions or are in storage. Bob did not want his paintings displayed in a museum. A quote from an interview tells us why.
“There are thousands of very, very talented artists who will never be known, even after they are dead. Most painters want recognition, especially by their peers. I achieved that a long time ago with TV. I don’t need any more.”Bob Ross
Bob really just wanted others to be able to learn how to paint and to feel joy themselves through the process.
Bob Ross Paintings on Exhibit!
Lucky for us Bob Ross fans though, a few places have been able to set up a small, limited exhibit of his painting. I was fortunate to attend one locally last fall (the first time his paintings had ever been exhibited here even though the company headquarters are in this area).
The vibe was exactly what you would expect from Bob Ross. Calm and relaxing and full of happy little trees!
Where else can you see Bob Ross paintings?
A few paintings were donated to the Smithsonian Institute. None of them are currently on display but maybe they will be featured in a future exhibit.
In October 2020, the Bob Ross Experience will open in the former studio building where his show was filmed during the 1980s. The Minnetrista Center is located in Muncie, Indiana. A permanent exhibit is under construction now and soon we can all experience the Joy of Painting with Bob Ross! This is definitely being added to my list for a future visit.
Art as Therapy
Bob Ross received a lot of criticism from other artists for his promotion of art as therapy rather than as Art. The fact that “talent is not required” offended their artistic sensibilities.
As someone with little artistic talent, I’m more than happy to embrace the art as therapy idea. And studies have shown that creating art, regardless of talent and ability, can really improve your quality of life. One LifeHack article claims that
Art = Mental Health + Happiness
There’s no reason why we can’t both enjoy Art in a museum or gallery- a relaxing and fulfilling activity- and also enjoy the process of creating our own art as a way to relax and feel fulfilled.
And speaking specifically about Bob Ross and art as therapy… It is estimated that only 3% of the audience watching were also painting. Which means that 97% of us were watching for other reasons. Annette Kowalski said,
“The majority of people who watch Bob Ross have no interest in painting. Mostly it’s his calming voice.”Annette Kowalski
A New York Times article from December 1991 also sums up his appeal quite nicely.
“For many nonpainting viewers, Mr. Ross’s hypnotic delivery and inspirational message provide balm to agitated nerves and, sometimes, respite from insomnia, side effects that have given Mr. Ross cultlike status.”New York Times
Fun Facts About Bob Ross
- His hair was naturally straight but he permed it as a way to save money. He did NOT like the hairstyle but it had become his brand image so he felt he had to keep it.
- He was first an art instructor for the German painter (William Alexander) using the same wet on wet method
- He was in the Air Force and he first started painting while stationed in Alaska
- He had pet squirrels. Bobette and Peapod were even seen on the show periodically.
- He always liked animals and even fed the fish at the lake near his home.
- He painted over 30,000 paintings during his life.
Learn even more about Bob Ross in the documentary, The Happy Painter
You can watch the Bob Ross documentary, The Happy Painter, on YouTube. Here’s the trailer…
And here’s the full hour-long documentary!
Read about Bob Ross (and his pet squirrel, Peapod!)
This cute picture book is full of happy mistakes as Peapod helps Bob finish a painting.
Bob Ross Merchandise is Still Popular
Bob Ross merchandise is very popular in the stores even now!
Search Bookshop for even more fun Bob Ross books and gifts!
Sharing is Caring!
Pin it to spread the word about Bob. (Maybe there’s someone out there who needs to discover him!)