Robert Norman "Bob" Ross (1942 – 1995)

Robert Norman "BobRoss (October 29, 1942 – July 4, 1995) was an American painter, art instructor, and television host. He was widely known as the creator and host of The Joy of Painting, an instructional television program that aired from 1983 to 1994 on PBS in the United States, and also aired in Canada, Latin America and Europe. With a soft voice and a permed afro, Ross went from being a television personality in the '80s and '90s to an Internet celebrity popular with fans on YouTube and many other websites.[1][2]


Early life

Ross was born in Daytona Beach, Florida, and raised in Orlando, Florida.[3] He had a half-brother, Jim, whom he mentioned in passing on his show.[4] While working as a carpenter with his father, Ross lost part of his left index finger, but it did not affect the way he held his palette while painting.[5]:22

Personal life

Ross had two sons, Bob and Steven, with his first wife, Lynda Brown. Steven, also a talented painter, occasionally appeared on The Joy of Painting and became a Ross-certified instructor.[6] The last episode of Season 1 was a question-and-answer forum in which Steven read a series of general "how-to" questions sent in by viewers during the season, and Bob answered them one at a time, technique by technique, until he had completed an entire painting.
Ross and Brown's marriage ended in divorce in 1981. Ross and his second wife, Jane, had a son named Morgan, who is also an accomplished painter.[6] In 1993, Jane died from cancer, and Ross did not remarry.

Military career

Ross enlisted in the United States Air Force at 18 years old and served as a medical records technician.[5]:15 He eventually rose to the rank of master sergeant and served as the first sergeant of the U.S. Air Force Clinic at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska,[7][8] where he first saw the snow and mountains that later became recurring themes in his artwork. He developed his quick-painting technique to create art for sale during brief daily work breaks.[8] Having held military positions that required him to be, in his own words, "tough" and "mean", "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", Ross decided that if he ever left the military, he would never scream again.[8]

Career as a painter

While staying in Alaska, Ross was working as a part-time bartender when he discovered a TV show called The Magic of Oil Painting, hosted by German painter Bill Alexander.[5]:17–18 Ross studied with Alexander and afterwards discovered that he was able to earn more from selling his artwork than his position in the Air Force. Ross retired from the Air Force after 20 years of service, having the rank of Master Sergeant,[7] and became famous worldwide for creating and hosting the TV program The Joy of Painting.[6]
Before the show launched, Ross tried to promote his painting technique but was met with little interest. He also had to find ways to cut back on spending, so he decided to have his hair permed just to save money on haircuts. The perm hairstyle was not comfortable for Ross, but it became an iconic feature of his image and brand.[5]:19
The show had its first run from January 11, 1983, to May 17, 1994, but reruns still continue to appear in many broadcast areas and countries, including the PBS-oriented network Create. During each half-hour segment, Ross would instruct viewers in oil painting using a quick-study technique from the imagination that used a limited palette of paints and broke down the process into simple steps. Art critic Mira Schor compared him to Fred Rogers, host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, noting that Ross's soft voice and the slow pace of his speech were similar.[9]
Ross later found success in building a $15 million business by creating his own line of art supplies and how-to books, and also offering painting classes taught by instructors trained in the "Bob Ross method".[10] In a 1990 interview, Ross mentioned that all his paintings were donated to PBS stations; his earnings came from sales of his 20 books and 100 videotapes (the total to that date), as well as profits from some 150 Bob Ross–trained teachers and a line of art materials sold through a national supplier.[8] Ross also talked about the donated paintings on the show Towering Glacier (#2341), saying they would help the station out.[11]
Ross also filmed wildlife, squirrels in particular, usually from his garden. Small animals often appeared on The Joy of Painting, even during some of his trickier works, as he would often take in injured or abandoned squirrels and other wildlife.[8]


Ross used the wet-on-wet oil painting technique, in which the painter continues adding paint on top of still-wet paint rather than waiting a lengthy amount of time to allow each layer of paint to dry. From the beginning, the program kept the selection of tools and colors simple so that viewers would not have to make large investments in expensive equipment. Ross frequently recommended odorless paint thinner (aka odorless mineral spirits) for brush cleaning. Combining the wet painting method with the use of large one- and two-inch brushes, as well as painting knives, allowed Ross to paint trees, clouds, mountains, and water in a matter of seconds. Each painting would start with simple strokes that appeared as nothing more than smudges of color. As he added more and more strokes, the blotches would transform into intricate landscapes.[12][10]


Ross dedicated the first episode of the second season of The Joy of Painting to Bill Alexander, explaining that "years ago, Bill taught me this fantastic [wet-on-wet] technique, and I feel as though he gave me a precious gift, and I'd like to share that gift with you [the viewer]".[13] As Ross's popularity grew, his relationship with Alexander became increasingly strained. "He betrayed me," Alexander told the New York Times in 1991. "I invented 'wet on wet', I trained him, and ... he thinks he can do it better."[14] Art historians have pointed out that the "wet-on-wet" (or alla prima) technique actually originated in Flanders during the 15th century, and was used by Frans HalsDiego VelázquezCaravaggioPaul CezanneJohn Singer Sargent, and Monet, among many others.[15][16]
Ross noted that the landscapes he painted—typically mountains, lakes, snow, and log cabin scenes—were strongly influenced by his years living in Alaska, where he was stationed for the majority of his Air Force career. He repeatedly stated on the show his belief that everyone had inherent artistic talent and could become an accomplished artist given time, practice, and encouragement, and to this end was often fond of saying, "We don't make mistakes; we just have happy accidents."[17] In 2014, the blog FiveThirtyEight conducted a statistical analysis of the 381 episodes in which Ross painted live, concluding that 91 percent of Ross' paintings contained at least one tree, 44 percent included clouds, 39 percent included mountains and 34 percent included mountain lakes. By his own estimation, Ross completed more than 30,000 paintings in his lifetime.[18]


Ross was well known for the catchphrases he used while painting such as "happy little trees".[19] In most episodes of The Joy of Painting, Ross would note that one of his favorite parts of painting was cleaning the brush.[20] Specifically, he was fond of his method of drying off a brush that he had dipped in odorless thinner by striking it against the thinner can (then striking a box for early seasons, and trashcan for later seasons; occasionally he would strike the brush hard on the trashcan, and say he "hit the bucket,") and easel.[20] He would smile and often laugh aloud as he said to "beat the Devil out of it".[20] He also used a palette that had been lightly sanded down, which was necessary to avoid catching the reflections of the strong studio lighting.[21]
When asked about his laid-back approach, and his calm and contented demeanor, he commented, "I got a letter from somebody here a while back, and they said, 'Bob, everything in your world seems to be happy.' That's for sure. 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."[22]

Other media appearances

Ross was a large fan of country music, and in 1987 he was invited on stage by Hank Snow at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. The audience gave him a huge ovation; he was a little nervous at first, but felt better after cracking a joke to the crowd. Reportedly, Snow was later given a private painting lesson by Ross.[23]
Ross visited New York City to promote his hardcover book, The Best of the Joy of Painting with Bob Ross,[24] and painting techniques to a studio audience several times. One visit in 1989 he appeared on The Joan Rivers Show. He returned in 1992 for a live show with hosts Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford. There was one in 1994, when Phil Donahue, who watched his videos and loved his painting technique, invited him to the show to promote his work. Ross took five audience members on-stage to do a painting and even Phil himself did a painting and showed it in that episode.
Ross at one time got an invitation to appear on Oprah, but declined because he wanted to do paintings for the audience, while the show wanted to focus on couples who are in business together, but do not live together.[citation needed]
In the early 1990s, Ross did several MTV promotional spots that, according to the American City Business Journals, "dovetailed perfectly with Generation X's burgeoning obsession with all things ironic and retro."[25]

Illness and death

Ross was diagnosed with lymphoma in the early 1990s, which eventually forced his retirement after The Joy of Painting's final episode aired on May 17, 1994. He died at the age of 52 on July 4, 1995.[6][26] His remains are interred at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Gotha, Florida.[27]

Commemoration and pop culture

In 2000, a parody of Bob Ross was featured in the Family Guy episode "Fifteen Minutes of Shame". Peter Griffin is watching the PBS show The Joy of Painting and supposedly following Bob Ross's instructions to paint a landscape, however it is revealed he has painted the Keaton family from the NBC show Family Ties in a parody of that show's opening titles.[28]
In 2006, a character based on Ross was featured in the first season of The Boondocks in the episode "Riley Wuz Here".[29]
Ross and his show were regularly featured on the British TV series Peep Show, where he was jokingly referred to as 'God' by the characters.[30]
Google celebrated the 70th anniversary of his birth with a Google Doodle on October 29, 2012. It portrayed Ross painting a depiction of the letter "g" with a landscape in the background.[31][32]
In November 2013, a character based on Ross was featured in the popular YouTube series Epic Rap Battles of History. The two-minute episode featured a rap battle between Bob Ross and Pablo Picasso.[33]
In 2015, Bob Ross was included in a commercial for HGTV Sherwin-Williams paint along with Leonardo da VinciAndy WarholMichelangelo and Vincent van Gogh.[34]
As part of the launch of Twitch Creative, hosted a nine-day marathon of Bob Ross' The Joy of Painting series which started on October 29, 2015 in commemoration of what would have been his 73rd birthday.[35][36][37] Twitch reported that 5.6 million viewers watched the marathon, and due to its popularity, created a weekly rebroadcast with one season of The Joy of Painting to air on Twitch each Monday, and will have a marathon of episodes each October 29. A portion of the advertising revenue has been promised to charities, including St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.[38]
In June 2016, Ross' series Beauty Is Everywhere was added to the Netflix lineup. The 30 minute episodes are very close in nature to The Joy of Painting series (minus the original few minutes for commercials).[39]