Bob Ross

Bob Ross
Bob Ross. Just his name brings a calm. The soft-spoken painter who didn't make mistakes, only "happy accidents," painted on PBS stations in the 1980s and 1990s. His untimely death in 1995 at the age of 52 occurred just when he was exploding on the pop culture scene. He appeared in a hip MTV spot back when MTV was hip, and then his sudden death seemingly extinguished all he built.

But Bob Ross lives on. There's a Bob Ross bar crawl, and someone's recreating all 403 of his televised paintings. But there's so much people don't know about Bob Ross, so much that will surprise you about the guy with the sweet pipes and sweeter 'fro.


He Had a Rival

To the viewer, Bob Ross is that happy guy who paints happier trees, and clouds, and rivers. To the artist, Bob Ross is a guy who paints in a very specific and unique way: wet on wet, where paint is applied on a still-wet coat to create the finished piece. Wet on wet dates back to the 1300s, and French impressionists used the method up to the early 20th century. The word on wet on wet is that "no serious artist uses it," and then Bob Ross came along and ... well, critics don't really like him either, but that's not the point.


Ross himself began painting in Alaska and learned his technique from a famed (sort of) wet on wet painter, Bill Alexander. The German-born Alexander appeared on public television before Ross ever did, in the 1970s. Ross dedicated an episode of his Joy of Painting program in Season 2 to his teacher and mentor, but things soured from there. By 1991, Ross wouldn't even mention Alexander by name, telling the New York Times, "(H)e is our major competitor."

Alexander was okay with it. And by "okay," we mean he said, "I invented 'wet on wet.' I trained him, and he is copying me-what bothers me is not just that he betrayed me, but that he thinks he can do it better." Hard to imagine anyone being mad at Bob Chillpants Ross, but it goes to show you: everyone has a rival. Someone out there probably hated Mister Rogers, too.

He Was a Mean Air Force Guy

young Bob Ross
Bob Ross is the last guy you'd expect to be angry with anyone, but he wasn't always a soft-spoken painter. Ross was born in Daytona Beach, Florida, and made his home in Orlando. If you're wondering how a Florida man made it up to freezing Alaska, he did it the honest way: by joining the military.

Bob Ross enlisted in the Air Force at age 18 and was stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska-a little south of Fairbanks. Ross served 20 years, achieving the rank of master sergeant, before retiring.

Ross wasn't the softy we know and love during his time in the military. He recalled that, "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." After Ross left the Air Force, he vowed never to yell and scream again-which led to his calming TV demeanor.

His Fro Isn't Natural

As recognizable as his sweet voice, the afro Bob Ross sports is the stuff of legend. It's a meme in itself, and every knock-off Halloween afro seller can thank every single sale on people dressing up like Bob Ross. But Bob's fro is as real as his rivalry with Picasso. The trademark hair is just a perm.


But wait, it gets better. He got a perm to save money-no need to waste precious cash on a haircut when it will all just grow into a big ball of awesomeness. And he hated it. He hated every stinkin' curl on his skull, but he couldn't undo his money-saving strategy. The afro became the logo for his company. His business partner Annette Kowalski said, "He could never, ever, ever change his hair, and he was so mad about that. He got tired of that curly hair." He was the only one.

He Didn't Make Any Money From His PBS Show

Bob Ross achieved fame for his PBS show, but it didn't pay the bills. In case you forgot, PBS stands for Public Broadcasting Service-as in a nonprofit station that gets 15 percent of its funding from the government. So obviously Ross wasn't swimming in it as a PBS star, but he had to make something, right? Eh ... not really.

Joy of painting
Ross said that he never got paid for his Joy of Painting program. As in nothing. "People see you on television and they think you make the same amount of money that Clint Eastwood does," he said. "But this is PBS. All these shows are done for free." No wonder Clint Eastwood never permed his hair! Ross made his money teaching, and selling books, and of course selling some of his paintings. Ross also sold videos (remember those?) of his painting system-which were really three-hour workshops that went into more detail on his style.

He Almost Never Painted People

In 2014, the statistical website FiveThirtyEight finally answered the paradox that has kept mortal man up all night: What exactly did Bob Ross paint?


Joy of Painting aired 403 times-Ross only painted 381 times (the others featured guests). As FiveThirtyEight explains, there were 3,224 possibilities for his paintings (they're detailed oriented). You know what Bob liked? Trees. A whopping 91 percent of his paintings contained at least one tree. You know what Bob didn't like? Flowers. Flowers are for suckers. Only 2 percent of his paintings contained flowers. He only painted palm trees 2 percent of the time also, but what do you expect? They're everywhere in Florida. He was probably sick of 'em. If Ross painted a tree (singular), there is a 93 percent chance he'd paint a second tree. Because trees shouldn't be alone, obviously. Surprisingly, for a guy known for his "happy little clouds," his paintings only featured clouds 44 percent of the time. But the only thing he hated more than flowers and palm trees were people. In his 381 paintings, only one featured a person. It was in silhouette against a tree-a lonely cowboy. And of the 18 percent of the time that he painted cabins, only one had a chimney. Must be pretty cold in Bob Rossland.

His Originals Are Worth Bank

Actually coming across an original Bob Ross isn't as easy as it seems. In the 381 programs he recorded (thanks again, geeks at FiveThirtyEight!), he painted three per show-one he painted on camera, one beforehand that he used as a guide, and one for close-ups and photography later (ah, the magic of editing). That means he produced 1,143 paintings during his show. Where are they?

bob ross original
For starters, he donated most to PBS stations, who auctioned them off. That presents a little bit of a problem in the art world. Provenance is a fancy word in the art world for "I got this from the artist, here's the proof." The "I bought it from the PBS station in Peoria" isn't going to cut it. But if somehow you have provenance, or just a lot of cash around, you can purchase an original Bob Ross-and they ain't cheap. A Ross can run over $10,000. That's a whole lot of happy trees.

He is Mesmerizing

Let's be honest. The reason Bob Ross became so popular wasn't a sudden interest in wet on wet painting. He had a unique look, and his voice could stop a war. His soothing, dulcet tones just sent people to their happy place. There's something about watching a guy paint clouds and trees in a pacifying voice that relaxes people. "We've gotten letters from people who say they sleep better when the show is on," Ross said. And that is the truth.


There's this thing called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. What people with ASMR get when they hear Bob Ross is "the tingles"-a calming, pleasing feeling that is usually associated with sex. Jenn Allen, the founder of ASMR-research.org, chose the word meridian because it's a synonym for "orgasmic."

There isn't any scientific support for ASMR yet, but those who experience it pity those who don't. Have you ever heard a good song and it just gives you that feeling? That's frisson, and it's real. So there is precedent for "something" happening related to sound and the arts. A common thread is that people with post-traumatic stress disorder or insomnia benefit from Bob Ross and his ASMR powers. We'll let you decide if the phenomenon is real or not, preferably by listening to him alone in a darkened room.

He Was Big in Japan

When you think of the fame of Ross-especially the pop culture icon he became all these years after his death-you don't consider it on a global scale. Yet, somehow, Bob Ross has a following worldwide.


There are certified Bob Ross instructors around the world, but for some reason, Japan took to Bob Ross like Germans to David Hasselhoff. Japanese television station NHK aired The Joy of Painting twice a day for years, and despite a Japanese voiceover translation-something most foreign countries airing the show did not use-the smooth pipes and relaxing mannerisms carried over perfectly. Bob Ross was big in Japan. When he visited the country, Japanese fans mobbed him like he was Madonna or Michael Jackson. His legacy continues there today. Artist Kenichi Yoneda, inspired by Bob Ross, paints using a computer code to create watercolors.

Friend of Baby Animals

The only thing that Bob Ross enjoyed more than painting was animals. Ross began his painting show in Muncie, Indiana, and immediately facilitated animal rescue organizations there-like feeding a baby squirrel in the above clip. Back at his home in Orlando, Ross turned his backyard into an animal rehabilitation center, caring for squirrels, birds, and pretty much anything that popped up in Florida-which in Florida could be something scary.


He didn't need a big excuse to show off animals during his painting program. The official Ross site cashes in, selling animal-theme named brushes and will teach you how to paint a jaguar for a small fee. It might not be the legacy that Bob Ross intended, but such is life.

His Son Steven is a Painter

On the 403 Joy of Painting episodes, the most frequent guest was Bob's son Steven. With his hair-band looks, Steve certainly didn't look the part of painter, but his technique without a doubt was on par with his dear old dad.

So if you're wondering what Steve is up to today, he's lying low. You'd think that since they have the Internet on computers now, you can find pretty much anything-and you can, including a very old photo of Steve, his mother, and father Bob. That's Bob's first wife (Bob Ross was divorced!?)-but other than that, Steve doesn't have a lot to do with the Bob Ross empire. A falling out of sorts happened after his father's passing, and Steve left Bob Ross Inc.


Steve Ross still paints, as does his half-brother Morgan Ross (from Bob's second wife). The two maintain a low profile online, but Steve is best known for making enough erotic references in one of his Joy of Painting appearances to become a short-lived meme. No wonder he keeps a low profile.