Bob Ross: 11 Things You May Not Know

Bob Ross Doc Photograph courtesy Netflix

Bob Ross has become a household name and is widely known for his calming and soothing presence on TV as the host of ‘The Joy of Painting’. Whether it was painting happy little trees, free roaming clouds or just introducing us to some of his animal friends this beloved man brought joy to so many lives and is still seen as an inspiring, soothing presence to this day. However, you may not know as much about the iconic painter as you think. Here are 11 things you may not know about Bob Ross.

He Was in the Air Force

One of the most iconic things about Bob Ross was his hippie image, soothing narrative and calm voice. So, it comes as a shock to most fans that he was once enlisted in the United States Air Force retiring as a master sergeant and reportedly was actually a drill sergeant spending most of his time yelling recruits into line.

He is alleged to have said that he had spent so much time yelling during this time of his life that he decided he wouldn’t do it in the future. This may be why he adopted his calm demeanour.

During his time in the Air Force he was stationed in Alaska, this is likely the inspiration for most of the beautiful landscapes he would paint with glorious mountain vistas and snowy woodlands. It was in Alaska he took his first painting class in the early 60s through a United States Organisation club.

His Inspiration was William Alexander

Bob Ross’ signature painting style was not something that he personally invented but one he found while watching TV in a local bar. William Alexander was a television painter and hosted ‘The Magic of Oil Painting’ on PBS where he taught the technique. Bob studied under Alexander who became a mentor to him and helped him master the skill.

When Bob Ross began to do his own show Alexander even did commercials with him where he handed off a paintbrush as a symbolic passing of the torch. Despite a falling out over Bob’s immense popularity, Bob never failed to give credit to his mentor and the man who inspired him to paint.

He Popularized the “alla prima” Painting Technique

“Alla prima” is probably more familiarly known to you as “wet on wet” technique. It is a historical painting technique that was used by infamous painters including Monet and Rembrandt. This style of oil painting allows for quick completion of work as you continue to paint on top of still-wet oil paint you have already applied to the canvas.

As a bonus, Bob marketed his own line of paints that were made specifically for this technique which was incredibly lucrative for Bob Ross, Inc and continues to be a main source of revenue to this day.

He Did Not Like His Perm

One of the most infamous things about Bob Ross is his incredible permed hair style. It is visible on several Bob Ross products in the logo and is one of the key elements to any good Bob Ross costume. However, originally Bob only permed his hair as a way to save money when he first started teaching painting in order to spend less on haircuts.

He reportedly hated that hairstyle and hated its frizzy nature. He only kept it to help market his products and even wore a wig later on when he lost his hair during cancer treatment.

He Worked for Free

From 1983 to 1994 Bob Ross hosted ‘The Joy of Painting’ on PBS which is how he first became a household name. While most people expect that this is where most of Bob’s income came from, he actually did the series for free making money through Bob Ross, Inc.

This company sold art supplies, video how-tos and in person classes. As stated before it is the art supplies that were the real money makers for Bob Ross, ‘The Joy of Painting’ was mostly advertisement in a sense.

Bob Ross could apparently film an entire 13-episode season in just over 2 days which meant he had plenty of time to teach in person classes.

People Rarely Painted Along with Him

Despite the huge popularity of ‘The Joy of Painting’ very few people actually tuned in to paint along with Bob. PBS estimates that 90% of viewers mostly put on the show in order to hear a comforting voice and get a little bit of positivity in his life. Many viewers were homebound or latchkey kids, the latter likely being the reason he’s still so beloved to this day.

With the dawn of the internet it is now possible to watch ‘The Joy of Painting’ on demand. This has made Bob an internet sensation both officially and unofficially. Infamously Ryan Reynolds parodied the painter in his teaser trailer for ‘Deadpool 2’ appearing in the Deadpool costume with a Bob Ross costume on top.

Even with the ability to now pause the show in order to catch up with Bob’s lightning fast painting most people who watch the show now actually do so as it is a fantastic solution to insomnia with Bob Ross’ soothing voice helping them relax and drift off.

He was Missing a Finger

Despite how many times you’ve watched ‘The Joy of Painting’ it’s likely you’ve never actually noticed this fact about Bob Ross. While woodworking with his father in his youth he accidentally sawed off part of his left index finger. He hid this fact as he used his left hand to hold his palette and so you very rarely got to see his left hand on camera.

His Paintings Were Donated to PBS Fundraisers

With hundreds of paintings made for ‘The Joy of Painting’, including three near-exact copies of each painting per episode, people often wonder what happened to all that artwork. Bob frequently donated these paintings to PBS stations in order to help them raise money during fundraisers and to help keep them running.

Despite the huge success, Bob Ross never sold any of his works from this period so coming across an original Bob Ross painting is actually a rarity. You can view some of them, however, at the Bob Ross Art Workshop in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.

He Really Did Love Animals and Trees

Despite the fact people tend to know most of Bob Ross’ content was not ad-libbed, he truly did have a love of both trees and animals. Trees seemed to be the most popular element in his paintings with a breakdown showing about 91% of his paintings on ‘The Joy of Painting’ included at least one of them.

Bob Ross had once hoped to develop a kids’ show called ‘Bob’s World’ where he could teach children about wildlife and nature. His love of animals was prevalent in his various cutaways to animal cameos with Peapod the squirrel getting a majority of this airtime. Peapod apparently loved to sit in Bob’s pocket according to the man himself.

He Died Aged 52 from Lymphoma

Bob Ross died tragically young at only 52 from lymphoma, his second battle with cancer. He was only diagnosed in 1994 and left TV after the 31st season of ‘The Joy of Painting’. Tragically in his final months he lost his hair, his voice become course and eventually he didn’t even have the energy to paint.

You Can Still Experience ‘The Joy of Painting’

If you would still like to experience Bob Ross’ studio and ‘The Joy of Painting’ in real life there are various places you can go in America. In 2020, two of Bob’s paintings, his easel, palette, brushes and other ‘The Joy of Painting’ objects were acquired for the American History Museum in Washington D.C.

In Muncie, Indiana where ‘The Joy of Painting’ was filmed you can visit the Bob Ross Experience which includes various workshops and a chance to see the legendary studio itself where Bob painted.

The Bob Ross Art Workshop in New Smyrna Beach, Florida allows you to see some of the fantastic paintings Bob did as well as the ability to attend workshops and classes on painting. If you feel up to it you can also train to become a certified Bob Ross instructor with focus in landscape, florals and wildlife paintings.

If a trip out to one of these places seems a bit too much you can always watch ‘The Joy of Painting’ on demand and even take the time to try and learn the skill yourself. Bob Ross Inc still sells paint sets and you can likely find alternatives at your local art supply shop. Most episodes will let you know not only what materials and brushes you will need but give you a handy list of all the paint colours that you will need to find.

No matter what you do, it’s clear that Bob Ross’ legacy and ‘The Joy of Painting’ still lives on in the hearts of many. So, if you feel inspired by the man maybe pick up a brush and paint some happy little trees yourself.