Bob Ross is known for his soothing tones and fast-paced brushwork. Less well known are the two decades he spent in the United States Air Force, where he reached the rank of Master Sergeant before retiring in 1981. However, Ross' military service offers a window into the choices he made, and the success he found, in his painting career. It was during his time in the Air Force that he fell in love with Alaskan mountains and took his first steps as an artist. And it was his dislike for the disciplinarian role he ended up occupying on base that led to the kind and gentle approach he embraced as a painting instructor.
After enlisting in the Air Force, Ross was sent to Alaska
Around 1961, an 18-year-old Ross enlisted in the Air Force. But he didn't train as a pilot — supposedly his height, a reported six-foot-two, and flat feet made this impossible — or work with planes. Instead, he was given a desk job as a medical records technician.
At first, Ross' Air Force career kept him in Florida, where he'd grown up. But in 1963 he was transferred to Eielson Air Force Base, about 25 miles outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. It was a change; Ross would later admit on one episode of The Joy of Painting that he was 21 years old before he'd ever seen snow.
Fortunately, his new surroundings appealed to Ross, who said Alaska "has some of the most beautiful mountain scenery there that I'd ever seen." Over the course of his painting career, even after leaving the Air Force, he would often depict Alaskan settings.
Ross was introduced to painting thanks to the Air Force
As a member of the Air Force, Ross was able to take a painting class at a U.S.O. club, which marked the first time he studied painting. He didn't care for the abstract teaching style that focused on "color theory and composition" but "wouldn't tell you how to paint a tree." However, he loved the art form. Ross continued taking classes, and painting became a big part of his life. In a Joy of Painting episode years later, he said, "I used to come home, take off my little soldier hat, put on my painter's hat."
Ross added to his Air Force income by taking shifts at a tavern, where he also sold tourists landscapes he'd painted on gold-panning tins. Around 1975, while at this job, he saw the show, The Magic of Oil Painting, hosted by painter William Alexander. Alexander was a user of "alla prima," or the "wet-on-wet" technique. Paintings done this way could be completed very quickly, as the different layers of oil paints can be applied immediately instead of having to wait for layers to dry.
Appreciating how this method could help him bring his artistic visions to life, Ross turned to Alexander as one of his instructors. Thanks to the lessons Ross took, as well as his hard work and dedication, he got to the point where he could finish two paintings on lunch breaks from his Air Force duties.
Ross didn't like being a 'mean, tough' sergeant in the Air Force
As he moved up in rank in the Air Force, Ross wasn't happy. In a 1990 interview with the Orlando Sentinel, he said of his time as a first sergeant, "I was the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work." He allegedly earned the nickname "Bust 'em up Bobby," but hated having to be a self-described "mean, tough person."
For Ross, painting when he wasn't on duty was a way to escape. He said in one episode of his show, "I'd come home after all day of playing soldier and I'd paint a picture, and I could paint the kind of world that I wanted. It was clean, it was sparkling, shiny, beautiful, no pollution, nobody upset — everybody was happy in this world." He also made a promise to himself that he would adopt a different attitude if he ever had the opportunity to pursue a new career.
After retiring in 1981, Ross was able to showcase his gentle and compassionate side, first as a traveling instructor with Alexander's Magic Art Company, then with his own classes and show on public television. These new endeavors needed time before they took off, but Ross was so determined to follow this path in life that he had his naturally straight hair permed so he wouldn't have to pay for trims (he grew to dislike the voluminous hairstyle, but had to stick with the look because it was part of his image when he achieved success).
Ross said of painting, "Anything that you want you can build here. This is your world." He took what he'd liked, and what he'd disliked, about his time in the Air Force to create a world of gentle painting instruction that continues to be appreciated today.