Bob Ross spent most of his 20 years in the U.S. Air Force stationed in Alaska, where he fell in love with the scenery and took a life-changing interest in painting.
Bob Ross is most widely known for his curly afro and “happy accidents” as the host of The Joy of Painting, a half-hour instructional television show that ran for over a decade from 1983 to 1994. But before Ross was a television staple in homes across the country, he was a U.S. Air Force military training instructor.
And Bob Ross’ time in the military wasn’t short-lived. He enlisted at age 18 and spent 20 years in the service, ultimately rising to the rank of master sergeant.
It may be surprising that Ross, who appeared on television speaking in calm, dulcet tones, was once the type of man who yelled at new military recruits to whip them into shape and toughen them up.
Yet Bob Ross would likely have not even taken up painting as a hobby — let alone hosted a television show about it — had it not been for his military career.
Bob Ross Joined The Air Force, But His Height (And Flat Feet) Prevented Him From Flying
Born in Daytona Beach, Florida on October 29, 1942, Robert Norman Ross was born to Jack Ross, a carpenter, and Ollie Ross, a waitress. When he was in ninth grade, Ross dropped out of high school to join his father in working as a carpenter, helping to support his family.
In 1961, at age 18, Ross enlisted with the United States Air Force. According to Biography, Ross was initially stationed in Florida, but was prevented from flying or working with planes because of his six-foot-two height and flat feet. So, he worked a desk job as a medical records technician.
Two years into Bob Ross’ military career, he was transferred from Florida to the Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, roughly 25 miles outside of Fairbanks. Having grown up in Florida, Ross had never actually seen snow or mountains in person, but he took pleasure in his surroundings.
He would later say that Alaska “has some of the most beautiful mountain scenery there that I’d ever seen.” Those familiar with Ross’ paintings might note that he often painted mountain scenes depicting Alaskan settings.
Ross spent a significant portion of his military career in Alaska, where he eventually served as a first sergeant at the Eielson Air Force Base’s clinic. By the end of his career, he was effectively serving as a drill sergeant.
“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,” he later said, according to Military.com. “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.”
Fortunately, Bob Ross’ military career didn’t solely involve yelling.
While In The Air Force, Ross Took A Painting Class — And Fell In Love With It
The United Service Organization (USO) is a non-profit that provides different services for military members, ranging from live entertainment to social events or simply free cups of coffee. While Bob Ross was enlisted with the U.S. Air Force, USO provided a series of classes that taught military members how to paint.
According to Military.com, Ross signed up for one of these painting classes, but found himself increasingly frustrated with the instructors. “They’d tell you what makes a tree,” he said, “but they wouldn’t tell you how to paint a tree.”
It was around 1975 that Ross discovered a show called The Magic of Oil Painting, hosted by William Alexander, a German-born artist who specialized in a centuries-old technique known as “alla prima,” or “wet-on-wet” painting.
“I developed ways of painting extremely fast,” Ross told the Orlando Sentinel in a 1990 interview. “I used to go home at lunch and do a couple while I had my sandwich. I’d take them back that afternoon and sell them.”
Evidently, this quick-painting skill would come in handy when Ross began his television career, allowing him — and his viewers — to complete a painting over the course of his show’s 30-minute runtime.
This technique also made Ross a prolific painter, completing an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 paintings over the course of his life.
Eventually, Ross realized he was making more money from painting than he was in the Air Force, and he retired from the military in 1981, vowing never to yell at anyone again.
“I’d come home after all day of playing soldier and I’d paint a picture, and I could paint the kind of world that I wanted,” he said. “It was clean, it was sparkling, shiny, beautiful, no pollution, nobody upset — everybody was happy in this world.”
Bob Ross’ Military Career Ended, And His Life As A Painter Began
Shortly after retiring from the Air Force, Bob Ross sought out the man who had inspired his quick-painting technique in the first place, William Alexander. Ross worked as Alexander’s apprentice, teaching his technique to others, and excelling to the point that when Alexander retired, he named Ross as his successor.
Ross and his second wife, Jane, then went into business with one of Ross’ former students and her husband, but they were not successful right out of the gate. In fact, in their first year, both couples lost $20,000.
But Ross had still been teaching his quick-painting technique, and some of the classes he instructed were recorded on tape. Just one year after he retired from the military, in 1982, a public TV station in Falls Church, Virginia saw the tape and offered to give Ross a pilot.
It was such a hit that 60 different PBS stations signed up to broadcast the show.
He eventually moved his show to the WIPB station in Muncie, Indiana because the station had offered to give him complete creative control of the production. And because Ross was such a prolific, speedy painter, he was often able to finish recording an entire season — 13 episodes — in just two-and-a-half days.
Of course, since his show aired on PBS, he didn’t actually make any money from it. “People see you on television and they think you make the same amount of money that Clint Eastwood does,” he told the Orlando Sentinel. “But this is PBS. All these shows are done for free.”
But it did get his name out there, allowing him to sell instructional books and video tapes and create a line of Bob Ross art materials with a national supplier.
In total, around 93 million viewers tuned into Bob Ross’ program. Many of them, he said, didn’t even want to paint — they just enjoyed the show and Ross’ calming voice.
“The majority of our audience does not paint, has no desire to paint, will never paint. They watch it strictly for entertainment value or for relaxation,” he said. “We’ve gotten letters from people who say they sleep better when the show is on.”
And though Ross died in 1995 from lymphoma, his work both as a painter and an instructor has allowed his legacy to inspire new generations for nearly three decades.