Born: Daytona Beach, FL
“We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.”
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Bob Ross, the painter and television personality, was a prolific artist who purportedly completed 30,000 paintings during his lifetime. Bob Ross wanted everyone to believe that they could be artists. While some may not like Bob Ross’ paintings, there are very few people who dislike the artist.
Robert (Bob) Norman Ross was born in Daytona Beach, Florida on October 29, 1942 to Jack and Ollie Ross. Bob Ross’ father was a carpenter and builder. For a time, Bob worked with his father doing carpentry. From his mother, Ollie, Bob learned a love and respect of wildlife.
Bob Ross has been dead twenty years. However, his stardom continues to grow. There are Bob Ross Clubs; T-shirts display his image and sayings; and Internet memes poke fun at his soothing spoken aphorisms described by his business partner, Annette Kowalski, as “liquid tranquilizer.” He lives on as a cultural meme. Lego figures, Halloween costumes, and cartoons of Bob are ubiquitous on the Internet. It’s easy to imagine that Bob would love to see his work embraced and celebrated by so many people in their own individual and collective ways.
Despite Bob Ross’ international fame, no comprehensive critical biography with substantiated facts from primary sources exists. It is as if Bob Ross lives outside of any larger artistic, educational, and/or entertainment context. Instead, the Bob Ross story is told through word of mouth, narratives recorded in fanzines, posts on message boards, blog postings, Internet tribute pages, obituaries, feature stories in the popular press, Wikipedia entries, and Bob Ross, Inc. publications. This lack of vetted historical information has contributed to Bob Ross being more of a legend that an important historical figure in the art world.
How did this mild-mannered painter become so soft spoken? Possibly because of his time in the Air Force. Bob is alleged to have been a drill sergeant while in the military. He is quoted as saying that after yelling so much in the Air Force; he never wanted to yell at anyone again. Whether or not he yelled at recruits, Bob definitely served in the Air Force and gathered inspiration while stationed in Alaska. The mountains in his landscapes are a callback to this time in his life.
Around 1960 Bob joined the Air Force. Stationed first in Florida he was eventually transferred to an airbase in Alaska. To augment his Air Force pay, Bob took a job as a bartender and sold his landscape paintings on gold prospecting pans to tourists. William Alexander was teaching the wet-on-wet oil painting technique on television long before Bob Ross. While in Alaska, Bob saw Alexander’s show on TV in a local tavern. Eventually the two worked together. When Bob began his own show, Alexander made a promotional commercial with Bob where he handed off a paintbrush as a symbolic nod to Bob as his painterly heir apparent. After Bob became more popular, Alexander and Bob had a falling out. Even so, Bob gave full credit to Alexander for teaching him to paint.
Bob Ross’ oil painting technique, “wet on wet,” is also known as “alla prima” or “direct painting. ” Oil painters have used this technique since at least the 16th century. As an alla prima painter, Bob Ross is in excellent company. Rembrandt, Hals, Fragonard, Gainsborough, Monet, Sargent, and de Kooning have used the technique in their work.
Bob marketed a line of paints made specifically for the wet-on-wet technique. These paints proved to be very lucrative and continue to be a main source of revenue for Bob Ross, Inc.
At least 90% of viewers do not paint along with Bob. Ever. According to PBS, which continues to air the Joy of Painting, fewer than 10 percent of viewers ever painted along with Bob. Although the show faithfully teaches his techniques, it turns out few people tuned in to make art. Bob’s soothing tones welcomed latchkey kids and his cathartic creativity comforted the homebound. For many, the Joy of Painting is a respite from the negativity and din of regular television programming. The Joy of Painting is an alternate quiet place of happy clouds and trees.
Purchasing an original Bob Ross painting is likely to be difficult. Few painters are copied by so many as Bob and copycat versions of his artworks abound. In addition, many of Bob’s works were never sold. Bob donated much of his artworks to PBS stations to help them with fundraisers and donor drives. So few are now available for placement above the sofas of people’s homes. The best place to see an original Bob Ross painting is to visit the Bob Ross Workshop in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. There you will find a large collection of his paintings. Classes in the Bob Ross method of painting are offered on a regular basis. At the workshop you can also train to become a certified Bob Ross instructor in landscape, florals, and wildlife painting.
However iconic and well-known his image, Bob is still a man of surprises. One glaring fact, that even the most faithful television watchers do not often notice, is that Bob was missing a finger. It was cut off on a saw while woodworking with his father in his youth. If you look carefully, you will see that Bob hid his missing digit by holding his palette with the hand missing the finger.
In the beginning, the classes that Bob Ross was offering in shopping malls and art stores were yielding few students. As a cost saving measure, Ross had his hair permed so as to require fewer haircuts. Supposedly Ross came to hate his frizzy hairstyle, but maintained it out of necessity because it was how he was depicted on Bob Ross, Inc. products. Later, as a result of treatment for cancer, Bob lost his hair and wore a wig to keep up appearances.
Eventually Bob Ross moved back to Orlando, Florida. His studio was in his basement. Linda Shrieves, a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, described a visit to Bob Ross’ home. She reported that his inspiration came from postcards, snapshots, and calendars “strewn” on the basement floor.
The Bob Ross business coupled Bob’s affable and humble personality with a distinctive hairstyle and dress down costuming of open necked shirt and jeans. Bob and Bob Ross, Inc. created a backstory for Bob that was very short on biographical detail. The Bob Ross story emphasized humble beginnings, an appreciation for nature, an every person philosophy, and a loving character that extended to students, his television show viewers, and the injured animals he cared for and rehabilitated. This narrative was communicated by Ross and continues to be communicated through Bob Ross Inc.
Long before social media, Bob was using TV in interesting, interactive, and creative ways. On his own show he would solicit viewers ideas for paintings to create, and share images from fans that were making his paintings. Bob made appearances on the Phil Donahue Show where he painted for a mesmerized Donahue and his audience. Exemplary of his media sophistication, was the decision by Bob in the early 1990s to do two promotional spots for MTV. In each he appeared in his characteristic open necked shirt and jeans standing at an easel with palate and brush in hand. In just a little over twenty seconds each, he paints two landscapes that morph into the distinctive MTV logo. Ross ends one spot by saying “MTV, its all just fluffy white clouds.” The other spot ends with Ross saying, “MTV, the land of happy little trees.” After his death, Bob was lampooned on The Boondocks and Celebrity Death Match in much the same way.
In 2006 Scott Kaplan, a member of the Art Department at The Ohio State University, participated in an installation and performance at the Mahan Gallery in the Short North area of Columbus, Ohio. Titled 30 Days, 30 Minutes, 30 Paintings, Kaplan installed in the gallery a studio environment mimicking Ross’ Joy of Painting set up that included an easel, platform, palate, similar brushes, palate knife, all in similar locations to Ross’. Wearing blue jeans and a white t-shirt Kaplan, with a long distinctive mane of his own, painted along to a Joy of Painting episode. In a video made by Alive TV in Columbus, it is possible to see Kaplan painting with Bob Ross while a throng of onlookers cheers him on shouting “Paint those trees!”
From September 27, 2012 through October 21, 2012 the Screaming Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon hosted the exhibit “Happy Little Trees: Contemporary Artists Take On the Iconic Television Painter Bob Ross.” Located in the hip and gentrifying Alberta Street neighborhood of Portland, the exhibit featured the work of 26 artists. Aaron Jasinki who also contributed a painting to the exhibit curated the exhibit. Jasinki, born in 1974, fondly remembers watching The Joy of Painting as a child. He went on to study graphic design and illustration at Brigham Young University earning a BFA.
Jasinski believes that he is part of a generation of artists whose work in informed by nostalgia for childhood with many artists using childhood references in their work. For this pre-Internet generation of artists, childhood, according to Jasinski, was a magical time in which popular culture references could be held in common rather than fragmented now because of the Internet. For Jasinski, Bob Ross and the Joy of Painting, being an early introduction to art, is one of those references. In turn this inspired Jasinski’s to curate “Happy Little Trees.” His goal for the exhibit was to bring together a group of artists responding to the influence of Bob Ross and/or the artistry of Bob Ross. A second goal was to bring attention to the influence of popular culture in people’s lives. When considering what to paint for the show, Jasinski considered doing a portrait or a landscape. Eventually he combined the two by doing a portrait of a smiling Bob Ross with his hair as a basis for a landscape in which other popular culture figures, such as the Smurfs, Woody Wood Pecker, Yogi Bear, and Bambi are nested.
Beyond the official and authorized presence of Bob Ross on the Internet, his unofficial and unauthorized presence can only be described as sensational. An easy way to grasp the ubiquitous and variety associated with the image of the man himself is to do a Google image search of “Bob Ross” where the result will be a rich display of permutations of the man and his paintings. Another place to experience the Bob Ross phenomenon online is to search for “Bob Ross” on Followgram the web interface for Instagram the photo sharing application. A similar search on Twitter and Tumblr yields similar results in text and images.
On Find a Grave, you will find Bob’s birth and death information, a brief description of who he was, pictures of him, and a picture of his grave marker in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Gotha, Florida. As of October 9, 2015, one thousand four hundred and thirty two “flowers“ and “notes” have been submitted to the site. Animated and non-animated icons such as clapping hands, balloons, flower arrangements, and holiday greetings often accompany flowers. Some also include tributes to Ross and his importance to a contributor’s life. On Bob’s page he is rated at four point five stars out of five on the “famous” scale (three hundred and seventy two votes cast). As a point of comparison, Andy Warhol is rated the same with two hundred and seventy two votes cast. He has received eight hundred and twenty two flowers and notes as of October 9, 2015.