Bob Ross: Only Happy Accidents (Bob Ross Biography)


For eleven years he hosted one of the most popular art shows on television — transforming a blank canvas to a finished painting in a remarkably short, 30 minutes. He captivated audiences with his mesmerizing voice and relaxed demeanor, and of course, his signature perm. Nearly twenty-five years after his death, the painter of “happy little trees” is immortalized through internet memes, inspirational quotes, a thriving business in his name, and reruns of his show The Joy of Painting. His fame as a pop-culture icon shows no sign of diminishing yet so little is known about his life. Today on Biographics, we piece together the world of Bob Ross — beyond the canvas.


Transcript Provided by YouTube:

00:00
For eleven years he hosted one of the most popular art shows on television — transforming
00:04
a blank canvas to a finished painting in a remarkably short, 30 minutes.
00:09
He captivated audiences with his mesmerizing voice and relaxed demeanor, and of course,
00:14
his signature perm.
00:15
Nearly twenty-five years after his death, the painter of “happy little trees” is
00:19
immortalized through internet memes, inspirational quotes, a thriving business in his name, and
00:25
reruns of his show The Joy of Painting.
00:27
His fame as a pop-culture icon shows no sign of diminishing yet so little is known about
00:32
his life.
00:33
Today on Biographics, we piece together the world of Bob Ross — beyond the canvas.
00:41
Personal Life
00:48
Bob Ross was fiercely private and never revealed details of his personal life.
00:52
He gave very few interviews — claiming no one bothered to ask him.
00:55
Looking for answers is especially difficult considering no official biography of his life
01:00
exists from primary sources.
01:02
The one documentary, “Bob Ross: The Happy Painter” can only be obtained by pledging
01:06
money to PBS, or getting a hold of a DVD.
01:08
The book, Happy Clouds, Happy Trees: The Bob Ross Phenomenon, admitted that their “text
01:14
is… about an understanding we have of Bob Ross and his life.
01:17
If we had wanted to write an accurate biographical book on Bob Ross, that goal would be difficult
01:22
to accomplish.”
01:23
Adding to the elusive Ross; he was said to have very few friends and they, out of respect,
01:28
only ever conducted interviews for the aforementioned documentary that is not readily or widely
01:34
available.
01:35
Facts are hard to come by, and nearly impossible to verify.
01:38
Still, some specifics are known and so far, remain undisputed.
01:42
Here’s what we know:
01:44
Robert (Bob) Norman Ross was born on October 29, 1942 in Daytona Beach, Florida to Jack,
01:50
a builder and carpenter, and Ollie, a waitress.
01:52
When Ross was just a year and a half old his parents divorced and Ross moved to Orlando.
01:56
Not much is known of Ross’ childhood in Orlando — save for two defining moments.
02:01
As a freshman in high school, Ross dropped out to work as a carpenter alongside his father.
02:07
Around the same time, Ross suffered an accident, losing the tip of his left index finger on
02:11
a saw blade.
02:12
Ross must have been self-conscious of his deformed hand for the rest of his life.
02:16
On his hit television show The Joy of Painting, Ross carefully disguised it — holding his
02:20
paint palette so it remained shielded from view most of the time.
02:24
Ross was known to be an animal lover his entire life.
02:27
As a youngster, this may have been passed on from his mother.
02:29
As a teenager, Ross allegedly kept exotic pets, including armadillos and alligators.
02:34
Later on in life, his pet gray squirrel sometimes made an appearance on his television show.
02:39
Ross once said, “If we’re going to have animals around we all have to be concerned
02:43
about them and take care of them.”
02:45
Bob Ross married twice during his life and had three sons.
02:48
He married his first wife Lynda Brown early on in his military career and they divorced
02:52
in 1981.
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The couple had two sons, Bob Jr. and Steven.
02:56
Steven would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a certified Bob Ross painting instructor.
03:01
Ross’ second wife Jane, was a civilian in Alaska.
03:04
They had one son, Morgan, who would also become an accomplished artist.
03:08
Sadly, Jane died from cancer in 1993 and Ross did not remarry.
03:14
Military Career
03:17
Long before his time on public television, Ross was in the military.
03:20
At the age of 18 Ross joined the United States Air Force and within a few years he was uprooted
03:25
from his native Florida and sent to an entirely unfamiliar place — Fairbanks, Alaska.
03:30
Ross spent the next twenty years of his life in Alaska — working, raising a family, and
03:35
developing a love for painting amid the majestic mountains, towering pines, and crystal clear
03:40
waters.
03:41
Examining Ross’ paintings over his lifetime, one can see without question, the trees, peaks,
03:47
valleys and streams are distinctly Alaskan.
03:50
Eventually Ross rose through the Air Force ranks to Master Sergeant after holding positions
03:55
as a medical records technician and first sergeant of the Clinic at Eielson Air Force
04:00
Base.
04:01
These positions required him to be, in his own words, “tough” and “mean.”
04:04
He was “the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy
04:09
who screams at you for being late to work.”
04:12
Ross gained a reputation for being hard on his subordinates who nicknamed him “Bust
04:16
’em up Bobby.”
04:17
For anyone who has watched Ross on The Joy of Painting, the image of him as the authoritative,
04:22
military figure couldn’t be further from his television personality.
04:26
Apparently, Ross yelled so much during his military career he never wanted to raise his
04:31
voice again after he left the Air Force.
04:33
Bob Ross the Painter
04:36
Ross’ first brush with painting occurred at an art class at the Anchorage U.S.O. club
04:42
but he clashed with his abstract-loving instructors.
04:45
According to Ross, they failed to teach him the practical techniques of how to paint.
04:49
“They’d tell you what makes a tree, but they wouldn’t tell you how to paint a tree.”
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Fortunately, the experience didn’t turn him away from painting altogether.
04:57
Ross soon found a more suitable painting instructor on public television.
05:01
Ross’ predecessor was an older, German painter named Bill Alexander.
05:05
He hosted a half-hour instructional painting show, The Magic of Oil Painting, on PBS.
05:10
Watching the show, Ross learned how to paint in the alla prima style (Italian for “first
05:15
attempt”), also known in the art world as “wet-on-wet.”
05:19
Ross perfected the technique — which allowed him to complete a finished work in a single
05:23
session.
05:24
Unlike other painting methods, when an artist uses alla prima, he or she can add wet paint
05:28
in layers without waiting for the paint to fully dry.
05:32
Alexander falsely claimed to have invented the style but it actually dates back to the
05:35
fifteenth century in Flanders (modern-day Belgium).
05:39
Alla Prima was popular with many famous artists throughout history but enjoyed great fanfare
05:44
among the Impressionist painters in the nineteenth century.
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Notably, it was a favorite technique of artists Claude Monet and John Singer Sargent.
05:52
After further honing his skills, Ross decided to supplement his Air Force pay by selling
05:56
landscapes painted on the inside of gold prospecting pans to tourists.
06:00
It was a lucrative endeavor and when his earnings from paintings surpassed his military salary,
06:04
he resigned to become a full-time artist.
06:07
The Joy of Painting
06:12
Upon leaving the Air Force, Ross returned to Florida and sought out Bill Alexander to
06:16
perfect his painting skills.
06:17
By that time, Alexander taught art classes in his spare time and happily took the eager
06:21
Ross under his wing.
06:23
Alexander didn’t realize Ross would later take everything he knew from these lessons,
06:26
make his own show, and rise to the level of superstardom — which eventually led to their
06:32
falling out.
06:33
During their early meeting, Alexander was impressed with Ross and he hired him as a
06:37
traveling tutor for the Alexander Magic Art Supplies Company.
06:41
At the same time, nine hundred miles away from Alexander’s studio in Clearwater, Florida,
06:45
a woman named Annette Kowalski was experiencing a debilitating depression after losing her
06:51
oldest son in a traffic accident.
06:53
Unable to get up, she laid in bed all day watching television episodes of The Magic
06:58
of Oil Painting.
06:59
Desperate and hoping to cheer his wife up, Walter Kowalski signed Annette up for a five-day
07:03
painting class with Alexander…or so she thought.
07:07
Before Annette’s arrival, Alexander had passed on his classes to an unknown instructor
07:11
known simply as Bob.
07:13
Annette was incredibly disappointed when she heard Alexander was not longer instructing,
07:17
but Walter insisted she go anyway saying, “Get in the Car.
07:21
We’re going.”
07:22
Over the course of the five day painting class whatever misgivings Annette first had about
07:27
Ross completely disappeared.
07:29
In fact, taking that class, she recognized there was something very special about him.
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Looking back years later Annette said, “I was so mesmerized by Bob.
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“Somehow, he lifted me up out of that depression….I just think that Bob knew how to woo people.”
07:43
Wooing people was Ross’ calling card.
07:46
Annette was on to something and saw in Ross an opportunity to “put it in a bottle and
07:50
sell it.”
07:51
She believed Ross was capable of making a fortune and she wanted in.
07:56
After the class, Annette and her husband took Ross out to dinner and brokered a business
08:00
deal.
08:01
From that point on, Annette became Ross’ manager — sinking her entire life savings
08:05
into the partnership.
08:06
Ross and his wife ponied up a similar amount of capital.
08:09
As manager, Annette focused on taking out ads in the local papers and setting up painting
08:13
seminars at various malls.
08:15
She even established a toll-free telephone hotline, 1-800-BOB-ROSS.
08:19
But for people to really connect and experience the allure of Bob Ross, she needed to get
08:24
him in front of as many people as possible.
08:26
They filmed a commercial, and possibly a pilot television show to sell to PBS executives.
08:31
Eventually, all the hard work and hustle paid off and Ross landed his own show on the network,
08:36
The Joy of Painting.
08:37
The first episode aired on January 11, 1983.
08:41
The Joy of Painting enjoyed an eleven year run on PBS from 1983 to 1994, filming 403
08:49
episodes in total.
08:50
During the 30 minutes of airtime for each show, Ross stood in a dark room with a blank
08:54
canvas and painted an imaginary landscape scene.
08:57
There were two cameras for the program, shot in real-time — a medium shot of Ross and
09:01
his canvas, and a close-up shot of the canvas or palette.
09:05
Ross faithfully instructed oil painting to viewers at home in the alla prima style — the
09:10
same technique he previously learned from Bill Alexander.
09:13
With little more than smudges, blotches, and scrapes from his palette knife, Ross created
09:17
masterpieces.
09:18
To keep the lessons inexpensive for people, the tools and color selection was limited.
09:23
Though he surely had the technique down, Ross’ real
09:26
draw for audiences was his calming presence, slower-paced speech, warm voice, and words
09:31
of encouragement sprinkled in while instructing.
09:34
In this way, Ross is often compared to Fred Rogers, the iconic children’s show host
09:38
of Mister Rogers Neighborhood.
09:39
On The Joy of Painting, there was no pressure from Ross.
09:42
He believed everyone could “paint almighty pictures” and “there are no mistakes,
09:46
only happy accidents.”
09:47
The Joy of Painting proved to be an immediate success for the PBS network.
09:51
For some viewers, it was a reprieve from the harsher realities of life, or the doldrums
09:56
of other television programs.
09:57
When asked about his consoling approach, Ross said, “I got a letter from somebody here a
10:02
while back, and they said, ‘Bob, everything in your world seems to be happy.’
10:05
That’s for sure.
10:06
That’s why I paint.
10:07
It’s because I can create the kind of world that I want, and I can make this world as
10:12
happy as I want it.
10:13
Shoot, if you want bad stuff, watch the news.”
10:16
The Joy of Painting was like a personal art lesson, described by his manager Annette as
10:21
“liquid tranquilizer.”
10:22
Yet amazingly, only about 10 percent of viewers painted along with Ross.
10:26
The other 90 percent tuned in to simply watch him.
10:29
Ross worked quickly to create his masterpieces — swirling the paint around, dabbing it here
10:33
and there — and grabbing for his two-inch brush every now and then saying, “Now, let’s
10:38
get crazy.”
10:39
He made the whole process of painting look completely effortless.
10:42
The truth is, Ross was meticulous and his manager Annette referred to him as a “tyrant.”
10:48
Ross was not mean or nasty according to Annette but he was every bit a businessman as he was
10:53
a painter.
10:54
He wanted everything on the show to be perfect and done his way.
10:58
Before filming each episode, Ross would lay awake at night planning and rehearsing exactly
11:02
what he would say.
11:03
No one watching would ever know — Ross always appeared to be calm and free form on camera.
11:08
His planning extended to more than the words he said.
11:11
For each episode of The Joy of Painting, Ross didn’t complete just one painting.
11:15
He always finished three.
11:17
Ross painted one while filming (the one everyone saw), another was done before and sat just
11:21
off-camera for Ross to use as reference, and the final painting, a more detailed work,
11:26
was completed after the show and was photographed for use in Ross’ instruction books.
11:30
Ross was never actually paid for appearing in any of The Joys of Painting shows on PBS.
11:33
Instead, he used it to promote his teaching business — which worked spectacularly to
11:37
expand interest after the first episode.
11:41
The business, Bob Ross Inc., eventually grew to include paint supplies branded by Bob Ross
11:45
and the company and Ross raked in millions of dollars.
11:47
To further bring his brand into the spotlight, Ross occasionally appeared on talk shows and
11:51
appeared in promotional gigs; some of these included MTV, The Joan Rivers Show, Phil Donahue,
11:56
and as a guest at a Hank Snow country music concert at the Grand Ole Opry.
11:59
The final The Joy of Painting show aired on May 17, 1994 after Ross was diagnosed with
12:05
cancer.
12:06
Ross’ son Steven, who made regular appearances on the show, appeared with his father on the
12:08
set.
12:10
Bob Ross the Brand
12:14
Most of Ross’ image was intentionally created — except for his trademark afro.
12:18
Believe it or not, his hair wasn’t even naturally curly — it was straight.
12:22
Before he officially had ‘made it,’ Ross ditched his short, military crew cuts for
12:26
a longer style and perm as a way to save money.
12:28
Once his perm was a hallmark of the Bob Ross brand, he couldn’t bring himself to change
12:32
it even though he grew to dislike it.
12:35
Later, after Ross got sick from Lymphoma cancer and lost all his hair to chemotherapy treatments,
12:39
he wore a wig on his show to keep up his appearance.
12:42
Ross’ outfits were another carefully crafted element of his “look.”
12:45
On The Joy of Painting Ross wore casual blue jeans with a button-up shirt…the top buttons
12:49
were left undone to reveal a bit of chest hair.
12:52
This timeless look was intended to appear “current” when PBS aired reruns of shows
12:56
later on.
12:57
A private man, Ross and his manager Annette told a backstory of his life that was light
13:01
on biographical details.
13:02
The story emphasized modest beginnings, a love of nature and animals, and philosophy
13:06
that every person matters.
13:08
His caring personality extended to his viewers, students, and injured animals that he took
13:13
in and cared for.
13:14
The narrative continues to be pushed today by the business, Bob Ross, Inc.
13:18
Illness & Death
13:20
In 1994, Ross was dealt a devastating blow with his diagnosis of Lymphoma, a rare type
13:27
of cancer.
13:28
Lymphoma is in a group of blood cancers — it attacks the lymphatic system.
13:32
The lymph nodes and glands, along with a network of vessels, are an important part of the body’s
13:35
circulatory functions that aid in a person’s immune system.
13:39
Many people with Lymphoma never have or display symptoms, and it isn’t unknown how much
13:43
Ross suffered from his disease.
13:45
Ross kept his cancer diagnosis out of the public eye, only telling his closest friends
13:49
and relatives.
13:50
He reportedly painted right up until the end, and died in 1995 at the age of 52.
13:54
At his grave at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Gotha, Florida, a simple stone marker reads:
13:59
“Bob Ross, Television Artist.”
14:05
Bob Ross’ Legacy
14:06
Bob Ross was a prolific artist, purportedly completing 30,000 paintings during his lifetime.
14:10
With so many Ross paintings out in the world, it would seem relatively easy to find one
14:15
and buy it to hang above the living room couch.
14:18
Not true — anyone wanting to purchase one today would be hard-pressed to find an original.
14:23
The reason for this being, there are so many copycat and fraudulent versions that have
14:27
flooded the marketplace.
14:28
And, virtually all of Ross’ paintings made on The Joy of Painting he donated to PBS fundraisers
14:33
to raise money for other public broadcasting programs.
14:37
Today the company, Bob Ross Inc. is going strong and is still managed by Annette and
14:41
Walter Kowalski.
14:42
The company sells a variety of paints, brushes, art kits, easels, canvases, instructional
14:46
DVDs and books.
14:47
On their website one can find and order Bob Ross branded apparel — including socks, T-shirts,
14:53
and baby bibs.
14:54
There are an array of accessories and wacky gifts, including coffee mugs, glasses — even
14:59
a certified Bob Ross Chia Pet.
15:01
Beyond the official merchandise, one can find just about anything with the Bob Ross image
15:05
— a quick Google search returns a prayer candle named for ‘Saint Bob Ross.’
15:09
The company Bob Ross, Inc. still trains and certifies painting instructors who desire
15:13
to work, teach, and promote themselves in the spirit of the artist.
15:17
Most recently, Netflix has licensed shows, adding Ross’ series, Beauty Is Everywhere
15:21
and The Joy of Painting to its lineup.
15:24
In pop-culture, references to Bob Ross and his aphorisms are everywhere.
15:28
His likeness and inspirational quotes live on through internet memes.
15:31
Google celebrated Ross for what would have been his seventieth birthday in 2012 with
15:35
an Google Doodle, an image of Ross painting the letter “g” with a landscape in the
15:40
background.
15:41
He has been mentioned in many popular television shows such as Family Guy and The Boondocks;
15:44
Target stores carry a Bob Ross board game, Bob Ross: The Art of Chill.
15:49
If all this wasn’t enough, the LEGO company has created a Bob Ross LEGO figure, complete
15:54
with a paintbrush and palette.
15:55
His icon status shows absolutely no signs of diminishing.
16:00
It seems Ross’ legacy will never die — and his fans will continue to honor and celebrate
16:04
the man for years to come.
16:06
Ross once said, “Didn’t you know you had that much power?
16:09
You can move mountains.
16:11
You can do anything.”
16:12
He showed us he could create a better place — a world filled with “happy little trees”
16:16
that was free of judgement — where everyone was an artist and every landscape was full
16:21
of majestic wonder.


This post was previously published on YouTube.

Photo credit: Screenshot from video

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