Painter and television personality Bob Ross was a prolific artist who purportedly completed 30,000 paintings during his lifetime. Ross wanted everyone to believe that they could be artists.
Ross was born in Daytona Beach, Florida, on October 29, 1942, to Jack and Ollie Ross. Ross’ father was a carpenter and builder. For a time, Ross worked with his father doing carpentry. From his mother, Ollie, Ross learned a love and respect of wildlife.
Ross passed away in 1995, but his stardom continues to grow. There are Bob Ross Clubs, T-shirts display his image and sayings and Internet memes poke fun at his soothing spoken aphorisms described by his business partner, Annette Kowalski, as “liquid tranquilizer.” He lives on as a cultural meme. Lego figures, Halloween costumes and cartoons of Bob are ubiquitous on the Internet. It's easy to imagine that Ross would love to see his work embraced and celebrated by so many people in their own individual and collective ways.
Despite Ross’ international fame, no comprehensive critical biography with substantiated facts from primary sources exists. It is as if Ross lives outside of any larger artistic, educational, and/or entertainment context. Instead, the Bob Ross story is told through word of mouth, narratives recorded in fanzines, posts on message boards, blog postings, Internet tribute pages, obituaries, feature stories in the popular press, Wikipedia entries and Bob Ross, Inc. publications. This lack of vetted historical information has contributed to Bob Ross being more of a legend that an important historical figure in the art world.
Here are 13 things to know about the famous artist:
Ross was in the United States Air Force
How did this mild-mannered painter become so soft-spoken? Possibly because of his time in the Air Force. Bob is alleged to have been a drill sergeant while in the military. He is quoted as saying that after yelling so much in the Air Force; he never wanted to yell at anyone again.
Whether or not he yelled at recruits, Ross definitely served in the Air Force and gathered inspiration while stationed in Alaska. The mountains in his landscapes are a callback to this time in his life.
Ross didn't invent his painting style
Around 1960 Ross joined the Air Force. Stationed first in Florida, he was eventually transferred to an airbase in Alaska. To augment his Air Force pay, Ross took a job as a bartender and sold his landscape paintings on gold prospecting pans to tourists. William Alexander was teaching the wet-on-wet oil painting technique on television long before Ross. While in Alaska, Ross saw Alexander's show on TV in a local tavern. Eventually, the two worked together. When Ross began his own show, Alexander made a promotional commercial with Ross where he handed off a paintbrush as a symbolic nod to Ross as his painterly heir apparent. After Ross became more popular, Alexander and Ross had a falling out. Even so, Ross gave full credit to Alexander for teaching him to paint.
Ross popularized an art historical painting technique call “alla prima”
Ross’ oil painting technique, “wet on wet,” is also known as “alla prima” or “direct painting. ” Oil painters have used this technique since at least the 16th century. As an alla prima painter, Ross is in excellent company. Rembrandt, Hals, Fragonard, Gainsborough, Monet, Sargent and de Kooning have used the technique in their work.
Ross marketed a line of paints made specifically for the wet-on-wet technique. These paints proved to be very lucrative and continue to be a main source of revenue for Bob Ross, Inc.
At least 90% of viewers do not paint along with Ross
According to PBS, which continues to air the Joy of Painting, fewer than 10 percent of viewers ever painted along with Ross. Although the show faithfully teaches his techniques, it turns out few people tuned in to make art. Ross' soothing tones welcomed latchkey kids and his cathartic creativity comforted the homebound. For many, the Joy of Painting is a respite from the negativity and din of regular television programming. The Joy of Painting is an alternate quiet place of happy clouds and trees.
Ross often donated his paintings to fundraisers at PBS
Purchasing an original Bob Ross painting is likely to be difficult. Few painters are copied by so many as Ross and copycat versions of his artworks abound. In addition, many of Ross' works were never sold. Ross donated much of his artworks to PBS stations to help them with fundraisers and donor drives. So few are now available for placement above the sofas of people's homes. The best place to see an original Bob Ross painting is to visit the Bob Ross Workshop in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. There you will find a large collection of his paintings. Classes in the Bob Ross method of painting are offered on a regular basis. At the workshop, you can also train to become a certified Bob Ross instructor in landscape, florals and wildlife painting.
Ross was missing a finger
However iconic and well-known his image, Ross is still a man of surprises. One glaring fact, that even the most faithful television watchers do not often notice, is that Ross was missing a finger. It was cut off on a saw while woodworking with his father in his youth. If you look carefully, you will see that Ross hid his missing digit by holding his palette with the hand missing the finger.
BRossob permed his hair as a cost-saving measure (and later disliked it)
In the beginning, the classes that Ross was offering in shopping malls and art stores were yielding few students. As a cost-saving measure, Ross had his hair permed so as to require fewer haircuts. Supposedly Ross came to hate his frizzy hairstyle but maintained it out of necessity because it was how he was depicted on Bob Ross, Inc. products. Later, as a result of treatment for cancer, Ross lost his hair and wore a wig to keep up appearances.
Ross painted in his basement
Eventually, Ross moved back to Orlando, Florida. His studio was in his basement. Linda Shrieves, a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, described a visit to Ross’ home. She reported that his inspiration came from postcards, snapshots and calendars “strewn” on the basement floor.
Ross created his image
The Bob Ross business coupled Ross' affable and humble personality with a distinctive hairstyle and dress down costuming of open-necked shirt and jeans. Bob and Bob Ross, Inc. created a backstory for Ross that was very short on biographical detail. The Bob Ross story emphasized humble beginnings, an appreciation for nature, an every person philosophy, and a loving character that extended to students, his television show viewers, and the injured animals he cared for and rehabilitated. This narrative was communicated by Ross and continues to be communicated through Bob Ross Inc.
Ross was hip to media
Long before social media, Ross was using TV in interesting, interactive, and creative ways. On his own show he would solicit viewers' ideas for paintings to create, and share images from fans that were making his paintings. Ross made appearances on the Phil Donahue Show where he painted for a mesmerized Donahue and his audience. Exemplary of his media sophistication, was the decision by Ross in the early 1990s to do two promotional spots for MTV. In each he appeared in his characteristic open-necked shirt and jeans standing at an easel with palette and brush in hand. In just a little over twenty seconds each, he paints two landscapes that morph into the distinctive MTV logo. Ross ends one spot by saying “MTV, its all just fluffy white clouds.” The other spot ends with Ross saying, “MTV, the land of happy little trees.” After his death, Ross was lampooned on The Boondocks and Celebrity Death Match in much the same way.
Ross inspires other artists
In 2006, Scott Kaplan, a member of the Art Department at The Ohio State University, participated in an installation and performance at the Mahan Gallery in the Short North area of Columbus, Ohio. Titled 30 Days, 30 Minutes, 30 Paintings, Kaplan installed in the gallery a studio environment mimicking Ross’ Joy of Painting set up that included an easel, platform, palate, similar brushes, palate knife, all in similar locations to Ross’. Wearing blue jeans and a white t-shirt Kaplan, with a long distinctive mane of his own, painted along to a Joy of Painting episode. In a video made by Alive TV in Columbus, it is possible to see Kaplan painting with Ross while a throng of onlookers cheers him on shouting “Paint those trees!”
From September 27, 2012, through October 21, 2012, the Screaming Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon hosted the exhibit “Happy Little Trees: Contemporary Artists Take On the Iconic Television Painter Bob Ross.” Located in the hip and gentrifying Alberta Street neighborhood of Portland, the exhibit featured the work of 26 artists. Aaron Jasinki who also contributed a painting to the exhibit curated the exhibit. Jasinki, born in 1974, fondly remembers watching The Joy of Painting as a child. He went on to study graphic design and illustration at Brigham Young University earning a BFA.
Jasinski believes that he is part of a generation of artists whose work in informed by nostalgia for childhood with many artists using childhood references in their work. For this pre-Internet generation of artists, childhood, according to Jasinski, was a magical time in which popular culture references could be held in common rather than fragmented now because of the Internet. For Jasinski, Bob Ross and the Joy of Painting, being an early introduction to art, is one of those references. In turn this inspired Jasinski’s to curate “Happy Little Trees.” His goal for the exhibit was to bring together a group of artists responding to the influence of Ross and/or the artistry of Bob Ross. A second goal was to bring attention to the influence of popular culture in people’s lives. When considering what to paint for the show, Jasinski considered doing a portrait or a landscape. Eventually he combined the two by doing a portrait of a smiling Ross with his hair as a basis for a landscape in which other popular culture figures, such as the Smurfs, Woody Wood Pecker, Yogi Bear, and Bambi are nested.
Ross is an Internet sensation
Beyond the official and authorized presence of Ross on the Internet, his unofficial and unauthorized presence can only be described as sensational. An easy way to grasp the ubiquitous and variety associated with the image of the man himself is to do a Google image search of “Bob Ross” where the result will be a rich display of permutations of the man and his paintings. Another place to experience the Bob Ross phenomenon online is to search for “Bob Ross” on Followgram the web interface for Instagram the photo-sharing application. A similar search on Twitter and Tumblr yields similar results in text and images.
Ross is as famous as Andy Warhol
On Find a Grave, you will find Ross' birth and death information, a brief description of who he was, pictures of him, and a picture of his grave marker in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Gotha, Florida. As of October 9, 2015, one thousand four hundred and thirty two “flowers“ and “notes” have been submitted to the site. Animated and non-animated icons such as clapping hands, balloons, flower arrangements, and holiday greetings often accompany flowers. Some also include tributes to Ross and his importance to a contributor’s life. On Ross' page he is rated at four point five stars out of five on the “famous” scale (three hundred and seventy two votes cast). As a point of comparison, Andy Warhol is rated the same with two hundred and seventy two votes cast. He has received eight hundred and twenty two flowers and notes as of October 9, 2015.
This article was written by Kristin G. Congdon, Doug Blandy, and Danny Coeyman, based on their book Happy Clouds, Happy Trees: The Bob Ross Phenomenon published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2014.