Bob Ross: The Man Behind The Happy Little Trees

Published May 5, 2017
Updated March 20, 2018

Bob Ross' biography truly paints the portrait of a man.

Bob Ross Biography

Twitter/BobRoss

In the early 1980s, Bob Ross quietly appeared on public television stations across the United States to give viewers an experience that was part art lesson, part entertainment, and part pro bono therapy session.

In more than 400 26-minute episodes, Ross taught his painting technique to millions of viewers, most of whom weren’t especially interested in learning to paint for themselves, but who were mesmerized by Ross’s hypnotic smoothness and trademark permed afro.

In something close to real time, he effortlessly daubed whole landscapes into existence on the canvas, talking the whole time about soothing topics and encouraging his novice viewers to discover their own inner artists. Even those in his audience who never picked up a brush still found the show oddly calming, and many reacted with real grief when their icon unexpectedly died of cancer in 1994.

Despite his consistently high ratings and devoted fan base, however, Bob Ross lived a very private life and rarely spoke about himself, and so there remains a lot that isn’t known about the man who coined the term “happy little trees.”

From Daytona To Fairbanks

Young Bob Ross

WBUR

Bob Ross was born in Daytona Beach, Florida in 1942. His father was a carpenter and as a child, Ross was always more at home in the workshop than in school. Ross never shared the details of his early years, but he did drop out of school in the ninth grade and seems to have worked as his father’s assistant.

An accident in the shop cost him the tip of his left index finger around this time. He seems to have been self-conscious about the injury; in later years he would position his palette in such a way as to cover the finger.

In 1961, at the age of 18, Ross joined the Air Force and was assigned to an office job as a medical records technician. It was a career he would stick with for 20 years.

Much of Ross’ time in the Air Force was spent at the Air Force clinic at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska. He performed well enough to earn regular promotions, but this led to a problem. According to his own later account:

“[I had to be] 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.”

Feeling that his job ran against his natural temperament, he swore that if he ever left the military he’d never shout again. To lift some of the strain he was under, and to make a little extra money, Ross took up painting in his spare time.

Mountains And Trees, Mostly Happy

Bob Ross Alaska Nature

Public Domain

He could hardly have chosen a better place to start painting landscapes. The area around Fairbanks features mountain lakes and pristine forests full of snow-dappled trees, all of them practically begging to be rendered in titanium white. These landscapes inspired Ross throughout his career, even after he moved back to his native Florida.

While he was slowly teaching himself to paint — and to do it quickly, so that he could finish a whole painting in a single 30-minute break — he found a teacher who would teach him what became his trademark style.

William Alexander was a former German POW who moved to America after his release at the end of World War II and took up painting for a living. Late in life, Alexander claimed to have invented the style he taught Ross, popularly known as “wet-on-wet,” but it was actually a refinement of a style used by Caravaggio and Monet. His technique involved rapidly painting layers of oil over each other without waiting for the picture elements to dry. To a busy man like Master Sergeant Bob Ross, this method was perfect, and the landscapes that Alexander painted perfectly matched his preferred subject matter.

Ross first came across Alexander on public television, where he hosted a painting show from 1974 to 1982, and he eventually traveled to meet and learn from the man himself in 1981. After a short time, Ross decided he’d found his calling and retired from the Air Force to paint and teach full time.

Learning His Calling

Bob Ross With Bill Alexander

Wikimedia CommonsBob Ross’ mentor, Bill Alexander, on the set of his own public television painting show.

Ross’ early years as a painter were lean ones. Being William Alexander’s star pupil didn’t pay very well, and the few paid lessons he managed to arrange barely covered the bills. Ross’ longtime business manager and close friend, Annette Kowalski, later claimed that his famous hairdo was a result of his chronic money problems:

“He got this bright idea that he could save money on haircuts. So he let his hair grow, he got a perm, and decided he would never need a haircut again.”

Ross actually disliked the fro, possibly for this reason, but by the time he had the money for regular haircuts, his frizzy hair had become an integral part of his public image and he felt that he was stuck with it. By 1981, he (and his hair) filled in for Alexander on his show. When Kowalski traveled to Florida to meet Alexander, she met Ross instead.

At first, she was disappointed, but as Ross began painting and talking in his soothing voice, Kowalski, who had recently lost a child in a car accident, found herself swept away by his demeanor. Approaching him after the class, she suggested a partnership and a promotional deal. Ross agreed, and he was on his way to pop culture stardom.

The Joy Of Painting

Bob Ross On The Set Of The Joy Of Painting

WBURRoss filmed more than 400 episodes of The Joy of Painting. He actually painted three different versions of each work for every show — but viewers only saw one on-screen.

The Joy of Painting aired for the first time on PBS in January 1983. In the first of what would be hundreds of episodes, Ross introduced himself, asserted that everyone has at some time wanted to paint something, and promised that “you too can paint almighty pictures.”

That colorful turn of phrase was no accident. According to Kowalski, Ross would lie awake at night and practice one-liners for the show. He was a perfectionist, and he ran both the show and the business in a very exact and demanding way.

Keeping the promise that he’d made to himself in the Air Force, he didn’t raise his voice — obviously — but he was always very firm about details, from how to light a scene to how to market his paints. He even found time for details like gently sanding his clear plastic palette to cut glare from the studio lights and thus make a less distracting show.

One of the things that made Ross’ show special, apart from his chill attitude, was that it grew out of his in-person art classes. Ross was fundamentally a teacher, and the point of his show was to encourage other people to learn to paint, so he always used the same pigments and brushes to make it easy for beginners on a budget to get started for very little money.

He used common house painting brushes and an ordinary paint scraper, rather than specialized tools, and fans of the show who wanted to paint along with him could always be ready to start painting when he did.

Once the show began, it unfolded in real time, the idea being that the audience could keep up with Ross. Only the occasional bloopers got cut, such as the regular occasions when Ross pushed too hard on the canvas and knocked over his easel.

Every painting he did on the show was just the first of three nearly-identical copies; despite his unstudied air on the show, Ross painted one picture before the show that would be mounted out of sight to act as a reference during filming. The second was what the audience saw him paint, and the third was painted later and took much longer; this was the high-quality version to be photographed for his art books.

Bob Ross Makes His Way Up

Bob Ross Fishing

Imgur/Lukerage“He was wonderful. He was really wonderful,” says Ross’ longtime business partner Annette Kowalski. “I want Bob back.”

Bob Ross’ books were an important part of his business model, especially when he was just starting out and hadn’t built up an art-supply line yet. Ross didn’t sell his originals, though he did sometimes give them away for charity auctions.

Eventually, his PBS show became the centerpiece for what grew into a $15 million business that sold Bob Ross-approved palettes, brushes, and almighty easels. He deliberately kept his line of paints as simple as possible, centered on the eight or so colors he always used on the show, so that novice painters could jump in and get started right away, without becoming experts in oil paints or getting confused by the selection.

In addition to the supplies, Ross remained focused on teaching students. Personal lessons could be had for $375 an hour, and gifted students could train to become Bob Ross-certified art instructors. All over the country, freelance small businesses sprang up as Ross’ successful former students took on students of their own and organized regular classes, albeit for significantly less per hour than Ross himself commanded.

A Harmless International Cult

Bob Ross Fans

Stumptown Football

Ross’ students reproduced more than his wet-on-wet technique; they also aped his laid-back demeanor and relaxed, tolerant attitude. This, more than the art itself, is what drew people to Ross, and it was perhaps inevitable that they would form what one observer called “a harmless international cult” based on watching Ross paint, sharing his choice quotes, and spreading the gospel that anyone can be an artist.

The Joy of Painting went into international distribution in 1989, and before long, Ross had fans in Canada, Latin America, and across Europe. By 1994, Ross was a fixture on at least 275 stations and his instructional books were in almost every bookstore in America.

Ross seems not to have let his success go to his head. Throughout his rise, though he always took an active hand in telling Kowalski how he wanted his business run, he and his wife continued on in their suburban home and lived as private a life as they could.

In late spring 1994, Ross was unexpectedly diagnosed with late-stage lymphoma. The demands of his treatment forced him to step away from his show and the last episode aired on May 17. Just over one year later, on July 4, 1995, Bob Ross quietly died from his illness and was buried in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, near where he had lived as a child.


After reading this Bob Ross biography, take a look at some surreal synesthesia paintings that translate sound to color. Then, see stunning video of the artist who literally creates paintings with fire.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
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