The Surprisingly Mysterious Life of Famed Artist Bob Ross
Amongst the pantheon of notable public television personalities, Bob Ross easily ranks alongside the likes of Mr Rogers and Elmo as a star who is almost universally loved and respected by the public. Despite being famous the world over for his balmy, soothing demeanour, his show The Joy of Painting and his amazing ‘fro, we know surprisingly little about arguably one of the best known artists in modern times.
This is partially because, for some reason, nobody ever really asked Bob Ross to do any interviews and he only gave a handful of them over the course of his life. In fact, in one of the surprisingly few quotes from the man himself that don’t come from his show, he stated “I never turn down requests for interviews. I’m just rarely asked”. However, in another interview Ross gave with Egg Magazine, who specifically sought him out because they realised nobody knew anything about him, Ross sheepishly admitted that he liked to “stay hidden” adding that he was “sort of hard to find“. In fact, Ross was so hard to find that PBS once lost track of him, though it would seem few, if anybody, noticed, until Ross called to let them know he’d moved to Orlando after the fact.
As a result of Ross’ love of privacy, coupled with the apathetic attitude of interviewers back then, details about his life are notoriously hazy and difficult to nail down to the point that even the book, Happy Clouds, Happy Trees: The Bob Ross Phenomenon, chronicling his life and career was, in the end, forced to admit that their “text is… about an understanding we have of Bob Ross and his life. If we had wanted to write an accurate biographical book on Bob Ross, that goal would be difficult to accomplish“.
A further hurdle for those looking to write about Ross is that his company, Bob Ross, Inc, today is fiercely protective of their intellectual property and Bob Ross’ privacy, even in death. One of the few things they’ve authorised that would come close to an “official” biography of his life is a documentary titled “Bob Ross: The Happy Painter” that can be viewed by pledging money to PBS or by tracking down a copy of the DVD, which is exactly what I had to end up doing to fill in the huge gaps of what I could find elsewhere about the elusive Bob Ross.
Finally, although Ross was a notable public figure who did a lot of charity work and met with hundreds, if not thousands of people over his lifetime, he only had a handful of close friends who understandably don’t like discussing his life out of respect for his privacy. In fact, some of the only known interviews with Ross’ family and friends about him can only be found today in the documentary mentioned previously.
With that out of the way, lets talk about the little we do know definitively about Bob Ross’ life and how he became the cultural icon he is today.
Born in Daytona Florida in 1942, Ross was the child of a carpenter (Jack) and a waitress (Ollie) who separated, married other people, separated from those new partners and then got married to each other again all before their son had hit his teens. As a child, Ross entertained himself by caring for injured animals, much to the chagrin of his parents who soon became used to coming home to find an injured alligator in their bathtub or an armadillo running around Ross’ room.
Education wise, Ross left school in the 9th grade to support himself as a carpenter with his father, during which time he lost the tip of his left index finger in an accident, an injury he later hid from viewers most of the time with his paint palette. When he hit age 18, Ross joined the Air Force which saw him relocated from Florida to Alaska.
As far as we can tell, one of the few times Ross spoke openly about his time with the Air Force was in 1990 in a sit down interview with the Orlando Sentinel where he explained that he disliked the job because it forced him to be “mean”, noting that he 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.
In stark contrast to the quiet, reserved nature Ross displayed on his show, in the Air Force he developed a reputation as a bit of a ball-buster, earning the nickname “Bust ’em up Bobby” from his subordinates.
During his 20 year tenure with the Air Force, Ross developed a taste for painting after attending an art class at the Anchorage U.S.O. club. Luckily, he found himself to be a natural as he frequently found himself at odds with painting instructors at the many art classes he attended. You see, many of them were more interested in abstract painting which was en vogue at the time. In Ross’ own words: “They’d tell you what makes a tree, but they wouldn’t tell you how to paint a tree.”
Eventually Ross found inspiration after watching a show called, The Magic of Oil Painting hosted by artist, Bill Alexander. Alexander touted a style of painting dating back to the 16th century called, alla prima (an Italian term meaning “first attempt”) that allowed him to churn out a painting in little under a half an hour. Alla prima is better known in the art world as “wet-on-wet” because it literally involves applying many layers of wet paint to a single canvas to create an image.
During a typical episode of The Magic of Oil Painting, Alexander would create a single painting, invariably a landscape of some sort, over the course of half an hour while slowly walking the viewers at home through the entire process. Ross would later use an almost identical format for his show, The Joy of Painting, which greatly annoyed Alexander.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After observing Alexander’s technique and learning to use it himself, Ross began earning extra money by painting and then selling Alaskan mountainsides painted on the inside of novelty gold pans. Before long, Ross became fairly famous with locals for his talents and would often give demonstrations to children and the elderly.
After a while, Ross began making more money from selling paintings and offering people art lessons than he was from his day job in the military. As a result, Ross left the Air Force after two decades of service, supposedly quipping that he’d never yell or raise his voice again.
After leaving the Air Force, Ross returned to Florida in the early 1980s intent on seeking out Bill Alexander to learn the finer points of wet-on-wet painting. Alexander, who was an art teacher in his spare time, happily taught Ross everything he knew about painting, blissfully unaware that he was training his soon to be arch-nemesis. (It would seem a missed opportunity that the pair never created a show: Artist Deathmatch, pitting themselves against one another in episodic paint-offs. Viewers could then call in to vote on whose painting was the best on a given episode- master or apprentice- with the winner getting to destroy the other’s losing painting in ever more elaborate ways at the start of the next episode where fans would learn who won on the previous show. This thing basically writes itself. ;-))
In any event, after a few months of lessons, Ross was offered a job with the Alexander Magic Art Supplies Company as a travelling tutor. While working for the company, Ross’ hypnotic, soporific voice and gentle, prodding style that emphasised that there were “no mistakes, just happy accidents” caught the attention of a lady called Annette Kowalski who later admitted that she was simply “mesmerised” by Ross’ personality. After a few lessons with Ross, Kowalski became convinced that if she could somehow “package” the experience of painting with him, she and Ross could make a fortune.
After meeting with Kowalski and her husband, Ross was convinced to leave the Alexander Magic Art Supplies Company and set up his own teaching business. Kowalski was so sure of success, that she sunk her life savings into the venture with Ross and his wife making a similarly daring contribution. In its first year of operation, the business lost $20,000 (about $45,000 today).
With money tight, Ross made the bizarre decision to have his hair permed, exchanging the military crew cut he’d sported for two decades for his now iconic afro. Ross’ reasoning was that if he permed his hair, he’d save money in the long run because he’d no longer need to pay to have his hair trimmed once a week. Ross kept the ‘fro for the rest of his life, though grew to dislike it in his later years.
According to Kowalski, Ross’ afro was such a radical departure from his previous look that many of his old Air Force buddies watching the show only knew for sure it was him because of the missing bit of his finger.
Exactly how Ross went from “perming his hair to save five dollars” to “being on TV” isn’t clear and there are two conflicting stories about how Ross came to the attention of PBS. The version recounted in the aforementioned PBS biopic of his life states that Ross filmed a commercial for the network with his former mentor, Bill Alexander, promoting his art classes that just so happened to catch the eye of the right executive. Another otherwise reputable version of the story states that Kowalski filmed one of Ross’ 30 minute lessons and sent it to the network, who liked it enough to greenlight a pilot. It’s even possible that both of these things is true.
Whatever the case, it would seem Ross flawlessly executed the so called “Steve Martin” method to success- “Be so good they can’t ignore you“.
When the time came to film the first episode of The Joy of Painting, Ross made the conscious decision to speak as though he were talking to a singular viewer, giving the illusion that he was giving a private lesson.
Although the set for The Joy of Painting was positively spartan (a deliberate decision on Ross’ behalf so as to not distract from the painting), a great deal of thought went into almost every aspect of the show. For example, Ross spent significant time picking out what clothes he’d wear on air because he didn’t want to wear any clothing that would “date” the episodes. As a result, Ross almost exclusively wore jeans and a casual shirt throughout the show’s run, a look he felt would be “current” regardless of how many years later an individual episode was aired. Another, less noticeable, thing Ross did was lightly sand his pallette prior to filming so that it didn’t reflect any of the lights in the studio. (In the first few episodes he opted for a translucent palette for this same reason.)
Although the official Bob Ross website claims that episodes of The Joy of Painting weren’t rehearsed, this isn’t exactly true, something that becomes immediately obvious when you realise that Ross began every episode by saying exactly which colors he was going to use. Ross actually painted three copies of almost every painting ever featured on the show- a first that was painted beforehand and used for reference while filming; a second that was painted during the show itself; and a third that was painted afterwards with a photographer, allowing them to get good shots for the many painting books Ross released and sold.
Speaking of which, Ross was never actually paid for appearing in the show and he never sold a single painting featured on it. The show was instead used as a vehicle to promote Ross’ teaching business, interest in which exploded after the show first aired. Over time, the business expanded to include Bob Ross branded brushes, paint, supplies, etc., all making Ross a millionaire.
As for his paintings, with the exception of the ones he sold to tourists during his time in Alaska, Ross gave away virtually all of them made during the show’s 403 episode run. As for the thousands of other paintings Ross made during his life, many of them were similarly given away or, when Ross became a household name, given to various charitable causes to be auctioned off. Ross also disliked the idea of displaying his art in a museum or gallery, stating:
Most painters want recognition, especially by their peers. I achieved that a long time ago with TV. I don’t need any more.
In fact, during his lifetime, Ross only ever allowed one public institution to display his work- the Minnetrista Cultural Center in Muncie.
Old habits, as they say, are hard to break and Ross was secretive to the end, hiding the fact that he’d been diagnosed with lymphoma in the 1990s from everyone but his closest friends and family. Ross continued painting almost until his final days, filming his show until 1994, just a year before he died at age 52. His final resting place is marked by a simple stone marker that reads: “Bob Ross, Television Artist”
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- Bill Alexander became very bitter towards Ross after the success of The Joy of Painting, claiming that Ross betrayed him and stole the wet-on-wet style he’d pioneered. Funny enough, Bob Ross Inc eventually trademarked the term “Bob Ross wet-on-wet” helping to make the technique synonymous with Ross. However, Ross himself openly credited Alexander as the man who showed him how to paint in his show’s first episode.
- Although immensely popular, Ross was widely criticised by many in the artistic community who felt insulted by his simplistic, anyone-can-do-it approach to art. Ross mostly refused to engage his critics, as he painted for the joy of it (hence the name of his show). An exception to this is the artist, Jackson Pollack, who Ross dismissively referred to as “Jackson Pollard” because he didn’t like the idea of Abstract Expressionism. To quote Ross: “If I paint something, I don’t want to have to explain what it is.“
- In 2014, the blog, FiveThirtyEight, performed a comprehensive statistical analysis of 381 episodes of The Joy of Painting and discovered the 91% of Ross’ paintings “included at least one tree”.
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