Everyone knows Bob Ross, that’s just an incontrovertible fact of the universe, but how much do you really know about him? The painter famously kept to himself, despite being a constant presence on PBS for over a decade and staple of every corner of the internet since. In fact, none other than The New York Times suggested that he could be “the most recognized painter since Picasso.”
There’s an old saying that you should never meet your heroes. No mere human could ever live up to the ideals you assumed of them. Well, thankfully, Bob Ross seems to be the exception to the rule.
It turns out the man famous for painting "happy little trees" is every bit as layered and lovely as his artwork. From his subtly subversive political views ("That's a crooked tree. We'll send him to Washington") to his views on abstract art (“If I paint something, I don't want to have to explain what it is”) to his unrelenting optimism (“We don't make mistakes. We just have happy accidents”), the painter with the perm was nothing short of a masterpiece.
Grab your almighty two-inch brush and let’s go crazy. Here are the 15 Things You Never Knew About Bob Ross.
15 He Was Missing A Finger
Believe it or not, Bob Ross was once a child. As a young man, he would often help out his father, a professional carpenter, in the wood shop in their garage. Of course, there’s a reason Ross became a painter and not a woodworker...
After an unfortunate run-in with a table saw, Ross lost part of his left index finger. We'll never know if the event actually managed to upset him in some way, but Ross never seemed to let it get him down. Most viewers, meanwhile, never even noticed, as Ross generally hid the missing digit behind his paint palette. (Although you can see it if you know what you’re looking for.)
In fact, the only people who did seem to notice were his Air Force buddies. Turns out that Bob was quite the looker in his day, and his permed PBS presence was almost unrecognizable to them. They only realized it was him by his missing finger.
14 He Was An Air Force Master Sergeant
As Ross was fond of saying, his favorite uncle, Uncle Sam, asked him if he wanted to go to Alaska, and how was he supposed to say no?
Bob Ross enlisted in the Air Force in 1961. Over the next twenty years, he rose to the rank of master sergeant, eventually serving as the first sergeant of the U.S. Air Force Clinic at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska.
Ironically, it was Ross’ time in the military that led him to be so calm. As he told the Orlando Sentinel: "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. The job requires you to be a mean, tough person. And I was fed up with it. I promised myself that if I ever got away from it, it wasn't going to be that way anymore."
13 One Of His Students Got Him On PBS
While in the Air Force, Bob Ross took a job as a bartender to make a little extra money on the side. On slow nights, he’d end up watching television, specifically The Magic World of Oil Painting with Bill Alexander, a low-budget PBS production where a preternaturally cheerful guy teaches people how to paint. Sound familiar?
Ross, already painting on his own, really took to Alexander’s technique, eventually befriending the man and even taking over his classes after Alexander retired from teaching. It was during one of those classes that Ross and Annette Kowalski were introduced.
Kowalski’s son had died tragically, leaving her depressed. She found joy in The Magic World of Oil Painting, though, so her husband signed her up for one of Alexander’s classes – only to find some dude with weird hair standing there instead.
Then Bob Ross started talking. The entire class, Kowalski included, was mesmerized by his calm demeanor and hypnotic tone. Kowalski brokered a deal with him that evening and became his manager. He began touring the country, before Kowalski eventually pitched him to a PBS affiliate as the host of a new Magic World-inspired program called The Joy of Painting.
12 Bob Ross Hated His 'Fro
Painting isn’t the only thing Bob Ross is famous for – his permed afro has become every bit as iconic as the man himself. So, it probably comes as a surprise to find out that he hated the thing.
Before he was a successful painter and internet darling, Bob Ross was just a regular painter, of the starving artist variety. He was touring the country in a mobile home, teaching Bill Alexander’s “wet-on-wet” technique as he went, usually to mostly empty hotel conference rooms. He told his wife that he’d try it for one year, and if he wasn’t successful, they’d move back to Alaska.
He was so strapped for cash during this time that haircuts were a luxury to him. So he went out and got himself a perm, figuring it would be a good way to save a few bucks. Turns out, he needn’t have worried, because he ended up being really good at his job. In fact, by the end of the year, he had his own line of paints and brushes – all of them emblazoned with that magnificent ‘fro.
Ross may not have personally cared for the ‘do, but he was no dummy. The hairstyle was here to stay.
11 He Betrayed His Mentor (According To That Mentor)
Bill Alexander billed himself as the “Happy Painter,” teaching his “wet-on-wet” style to millions on television and in classrooms, even appearing on The Tonight Show at one point. Eventually, though, time caught up with Alexander and he enlisted Bob Ross to take over teaching for him. Once Ross’ own fame started to pick up, the two filmed a commercial together, with Alexander symbolically handing over his paintbrush to Ross. All was well in the land of happy little trees.
Then Ross became even more successful, and the “Happy Painter” became the angry painter. Alexander started claiming that Ross “betrayed” him and stole the technique that he invented – despite the fact that Bob Ross continued to give Bill Alexander full credit for teaching him to paint in The Joy of Painting.
It’s probably also worth mentioning that “wet-on-wet” (or “alla prima”) is a technique dating back to the 1400s, and was used by others, such as Paul Cezanne and Claude Monet.
Anyway, Ross and Alexander didn’t really talk much after that.
10 He Painted An Estimated 30,000+ Paintings
No one knows exactly how many paintings Bob Ross made, but the best estimates are in the tens of thousands.
What we do know is that The Joy of Painting ran for 31 seasons, a total of 403 episodes. Ross painted in 381 of these – and he painted three copies of each painting every time. The first one he’d paint beforehand as a guide; the second was the one he painted on the show; and the third one was for his How To books, with a photographer standing behind him and snapping shots of each brushstroke as he went. That’s 1,143 right there.
Then there were all his personal paintings. Unfortunately, there aren’t hard numbers on those, because Ross didn't keeping track. He sold a fair amount when he was in the Air Force, and there was also everything he painted while he was teaching. Additionally, he was known for giving away quite a few, and then, of course, there’s the experiments and the practice works he painted for himself. All told, the final number is assumed to be somewhere over 30,000.
For comparison, Vincent Van Gogh made 900 paintings in his lifetime.
9 He Shot An Entire Season In Two Days
During his time in the Air Force, Bob Ross would crank out a couple paintings over lunch – and that’s not hyperbole. He’d literally paint, often on the insides of old gold-panning tins, while he ate a sandwich, and then have those paintings out for sale in local tourist shops the same afternoon.
Combining his own knowledge with the techniques he picked up from Bill Alexander, Ross developed a technique for painting extremely fast. In fact, he’d shoot an entire season of The Joy of Painting in two-and-a-half days.
Now, admittedly, there were only thirteen episodes in a season, but that’s still a short period, especially given that he’d have to paint each painting three times. However, that’s the beauty of doing it all on his terms: he had complete control and a great rapport with his crew. They all knew what they were doing from the get-go. Their record was eight shows in a single day.
8 He Puts People To Sleep (And They Love Him For It)
You’d think for a guy firing out paintings like a Gatling gun, Bob Ross would be a bundle of energy drinking too many caffeinated beverages, but he wasn't. In fact, Ross’ style of teaching was so calming and meditative, he put people to sleep, literally.
While it was on the air, a full ninety percent of The Joy of Painting audience didn't paint. They watched the show for Bob Ross-- he was their own personal relaxation guru. They weren’t shy about telling him this: he said he received multiple letters from viewers saying that they slept better when the show was on. He never begrudged them that for a moment. In fact, keen viewers might notice that he got even quieter and more calming as the series went on.
Even now, there are plenty of people on the internet who watch his videos specifically to help them fall asleep. While some are part of the ASMR community – a growing subset of folks who listen to certain noises to get “tingles” – others just chalk it up to being one of Ross’ “happy little accidents.”
7 The Internet Loves Bob Ross
Bob Ross passed away over twenty years ago – but don’t tell the internet that.
Ross is one of the most meme-ified figures out there. Crafters have flooded Etsy with homemade Lego figures and Halloween costumes in his likeness. He’s been a Google doodle, a frequent subject on Mental Floss and Buzzfeed, and a sparring partner for Pablo Picasso in Epic Rap Battles of History. Most recently Ross has been uploaded into DeepDream, because the internet can make a nightmare out of anything.
However, perhaps no one loves Ross more than Twitch, the live-streaming platform that airs Bob Ross reruns every week. Following a successful 200 hour Joy of Painting marathon for his birthday a few years back – which more than 5 million people watched – Twitch has made the Ross reruns a regular event.
Part of his success is that, unlike some other entities out there, Bob Ross Inc. loves that people love him, and rarely enforces their copyrights, leaving fans free to remix Bob Ross' image.
Fruzsina Eordogh of Motherboard said it best: “He is the yin to the internet hate machine's yang.”
6 He Once Painted an Entirely Grey Painting
Of course, it’s not just the web that loves Bob Ross. Back in the pre-internet Stone Age, viewers would send him actual letters, and he’d read all of them.
In fact, when regular letter writers fell out of touch, Ross would actually call them, just to check in and see if they were okay. At Christmas, if someone’s message had particularly touched him, he would send the writer a painting, as a thank you.
After one gentleman wrote a letter stating that he could never paint because he was color blind, Ross actually devoted an entire episode of The Joy of Painting to creating a landscape entirely in grey, combining browns, blues, and whites to come up with different shades. Bob Ross was a huge proponent of the “anyone can paint” ethos, and wasn’t about to let anyone think otherwise. As he was so fond of saying, “Everyone needs a friend.”
5 Bob Ross Never Painted People
If you watch The Joy of Painting carefully, you might realize that he rarely painted cabins, and, when he did, they never had chimneys. That wasn’t an accident: Bob Ross never painted people, and he didn’t even want signs of people in his paintings. The internet’s got the numbers to back this up.
FiveThirtyEight did a statistical analysis and found that Ross only painted one person in his nearly four hundred episodes of the Joy of Painting, and that was simply a silhouette against a tree near a campfire. His manager, Annette Kowalksi, said she could think of only two other times he’d painted a person in the entirety of his career.
Instead, Ross chose to focus his efforts on the majesty of the Alaskan landscape, having fallen in love with the state during his time in the Air Force. When he felt like mixing things up, he’d take inspiration from the postcards, photos, and calendars littered across his basement floor – most sent from viewers.
Even so, the most requested paintings were those of mountains, so Ross made sure to give the people what they wanted.
4 13 Paintings Were Stolen (And Sold On The Black Market)
Because the art world has a reputation for being snobby and elitist, it’s probably not a shock to hear that the works of Bob Ross are looked down on by “serious” collectors. However, this doesn’t mean that Ross’ paintings don’t sell – just not through the traditional avenues.
No one knows how much a Ross painting is actually worth, as they don’t sell well in professionally curated auctions and they’ve never been properly appraised. On eBay, though, his works have gone for as high as $10,000. It’s not like there’s no demand: during The Joy of Painting’s second season, a burglar stole thirteen paintings from Ross’ van, and purportedly sold them on the black market.
Not that any of this bothered Bob Ross. He was actively against showing his work in a museum or gallery, saying on the show that: “most painters want recognition, especially by their peers. I achieved that a long time ago with TV. I don’t need any more.”
3 Bob Ross Wasn't Afraid Of Shilling
More than anything, though, Bob Ross was an amazing businessman. Between him and Annette Kowalski, they were able to turn a quiet guy with big hair and a paintbrush into an enduring multi-million dollar empire.
For starters, while The Joy of Painting was unscripted, it wasn’t unrehearsed. Ross would talk to himself as he fell asleep, plotting out the next day’s paintings. Kowalski’s also been on record as saying that Ross ran a tight set: everything was a choice, and every choice was his.
Meanwhile, he was crowdsourcing his show before there was a word for it, asking viewers to send in ideas for paintings, and sharing snapshots of their own paintings, drawing them in and making them a part of the proceedings. He famously appeared in a series of MTV commercials, declaring the channel as “the land of happy little trees.”
Of course, they weren’t all winners. Somewhere, in some dank back room, there’s presumably a pilot for Bob’s World, a failed wilderness-based Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood that Ross was trying to get on the air. Similarly, there were plans for a Bob Ross Nintendo game that never got off the ground.
2 PBS Never Paid Him For Joy Of Painting
PBS never paid Bob Ross for a single episode of The Joy of Painting – and that’s just how Ross wanted it. The artist, ever the savvy businessman, was actually using the show to promote his own line of paints and brushes. That was how he made money.
However, surely, he sold the hundreds of paintings he made on the show, right? Nope. In fact, Ross donated almost all of the paintings from the show right back to PBS stations across the country, letting them auction them off during their pledge drives. Sometimes he’d even make brand new ones. When he died, the paintings he was still sitting on were donated to non-profits or auctioned off for charity.
This is another reason why finding an original Bob Ross or pinning down a price is so difficult. Once his PBS show took off, Ross basically stopped selling his paintings, at least directly. Because he was telling people how to paint like him, there are also tons of fakes and copycat paintings out there.
1 Bob Ross Is A Video Game God
Maybe it’s not surprising that a guy who seemed to get a thrill out of moving mountains and “beating the Devil” out of his brushes ended up being a god. In a video game, anyway.
Smite, Hi-Rez Studio’s mythology-based arena combat game, released a skin for their tree god, Sylvanus, allowing users to play as none other than Bob Ross. The skin takes a mostly pacifist approach to combat, throwing paint and summoning happy little clouds against their enemies.
Turning the painter into a god seems especially fitting. As Ross said: "that's why I paint. It's because I can create the kind of world that I want, and I can make this world as happy as I want it. Shoot, if you want bad stuff, watch the news."
He added elsewhere: “in painting, you have unlimited power. You have the ability to move mountains. You can bend rivers. But when I get home, the only thing I have power over is the garbage.”
And our hearts, Bob. And our hearts.
All episodes of The Joy of Painting are available on YouTube. Sleep well.
Can you think of any other interesting facts about Bob Ross? Is he your favorite painter? Let us know in the comment section!
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