Bob Ross was raised in Orlando, Florida. Ross had a half brother Jim, whom he mentioned in passing on his show. While working as a carpenter with his father, Ross lost his left index finger. It did not affect the way he held his palette while painting.
Ross enlisted in the United States Air Force at age 17. The Air Force transferred him to Elmendorf Air Force Base (in Alaska), where he first saw the snow and mountains that later became recurring themes in his artwork. He developed his quick-painting technique to create art for sale in brief daily work breaks. Having held military positions that required him to be, in his own words, “mean” and “tough,” “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,” Ross decided that if he ever moved on from the military, “it wasn’t going to be that way any more,” vowing “never to scream again.” During this time Bob met Jane, who would become his second wife, when they worked in the medical field.
During Ross’ stay in Alaska, he worked as a bartender part-time, when he discovered a TV show that was called The Magic World of Oil Painting, hosted by a German painter, named Bill Alexander.
After studying with Bill Alexander, Ross discovered that he was soon able to earn more from selling his work than from his Air Force position. Ross then retired from the Air Force after 20 years of service with the rank of Master Sergeant and became famous worldwide hosting the television program, The Joy of Painting, with the help of Annette & Walter Kowalski.
Before the show was launched, Bob would try to promote the painting technique but with little interest. He also had to find a way to cut back on spending, so he decided to have his hair permed, just so he could save money on haircuts. The perm hairstyle was not comfortable for Bob, but ultimately became an iconic feature of the painter.
Ross was the host of the public television series The Joy of Painting. The show had its first run from January 11, 1983, to May 17, 1994, but still continues to appear in reruns in many broadcast areas and countries, including the PBS oriented Create, and is a popular YouTube presence. During each half-hour segment, Ross would instruct viewers in oil painting using a quick-study technique that used a limited palette of paints in each work and broke down the process into simple steps. Art critic Mira Schor compared him to Fred Rogers, another PBS television host, noting that the softness of Ross’s voice and the slow pace of his speech were similar.
Ross later founded his own successful line of art supplies and how-to books, and also offered painting classes taught by instructors trained in a “Bob Ross method,” building a $15 million business. In a 1990 interview, Ross mentioned that all his paintings were donated to PBS stations and that his earnings came instead from sales of his 20 books and 100 videotapes (the total to that date), as well as profits from some 150 Bob Ross–trained teachers and a line of art materials sold through a national supplier. Ross also talked about the donated paintings on the show Towering Glacier (#2341), on which he said that they were to help the stations out.
Ross also filmed wildlife footage, squirrels in particular, usually from his own garden. Small animals often appeared on his show, even during some of his trickier works, as he would often take in injured or abandoned squirrels and other assorted wildlife and look after them.
Ross used the wet-on-wet oil painting technique, in which the painter continues adding paint on top of still-wet paint rather than waiting a lengthy amount of time to allow each layer of paint to dry. From the beginning, the program kept the selection of tools and colors simple so that viewers wouldn’t have to make large investments in them. Ross frequently recommended odorless paint thinner (aka odorless mineral spirits) for brush cleaning. Combining the painting method with the use of one- and two-inch brushes as well as painting knives allowed Ross to paint trees, water, clouds, and mountains in a matter of seconds. Each painting would start with simple strokes that appeared to be nothing more than colored smudges. As he added more and more strokes, the blotches transformed into intricate landscapes. Ross dedicated the first episode of the second season of The Joy of Painting to William Alexander, explaining that “years ago, Bill taught me this fantastic [wet-on-wet] technique, and I feel as though he gave me a precious gift, and I’d like to share that gift with you [the viewer]”. He estimated having painted between 25,000 and 30,000 paintings in his life.
Ross noted that the landscapes he painted—typically mountains, lakes, snow, and log cabin scenes—were strongly influenced by his years living in Alaska, where he was stationed for the majority of his Air Force career. He repeatedly stated on the show his belief that everyone had inherent artistic talent and could become an accomplished artist given time, practice, and encouragement, and to this end was often fond of saying, “We don’t make mistakes; we just have happy accidents.”
Ross was well known for other catch phrases he used while painting as he crafted the ever-so-popular saying: “happy little trees.” In most episodes of The Joy of Painting, he noted that one of his favorite parts of painting was cleaning the brush, specifically his method of drying off a brush, which he had dipped in odorless thinner, by striking it against the thinner can and easel. He would smile and often laugh aloud as he “beat the devil out of it.” He also used a palette that had been lightly sanded down, which was necessary to avoid catching the reflections of strong studio lighting. At the end of each episode, Ross was best known for saying, “so from all of us here, I’d like to wish you happy painting, and God bless, my friend.”
When asked about his laid-back approach to painting and calm and contented demeanor, he once commented: “I got a letter from somebody here a while back, and they said, ‘Bob, everything in your world seems to be happy.’ That’s for sure. That’s why I paint. It’s because I can create the kind of world that I want, and I can make this world as happy as I want it. Shoot, if you want bad stuff, watch the news.”
Bob Ross was a big fan of country music and in 1987, he was invited on stage by Hank Snow at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. The audience gave him a huge ovation and Bob himself was a little nervous at first, but felt better after cracking a joke to the crowd. Hank was also given a private painting lesson by Bob, along with his business partner, Annette Kowalski.
Bob would also appear on the US shopping channel QVC, to promote his products on air. At one point after his air segment ended, a producer handed him a phone and Bob was so shocked and excited to hear that it was Marlon Brando on the other end.
Ross visited New York City to promote his hardcover book called The Best of the Joy of Painting with Bob Ross and painting techniques to a studio audience several times. One visit was in 1989 when he appeared on The Joan Rivers Show, another was in 1992 on a live show with hosts Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford and there was one in 1994, when Phil Donahue, who watched his videos and loved his painting technique, invited him to the show to promote his work. Bob took five audience members to come on stage do a painting, even Phil himself did a painting and showed it publicly in that episode. Ross at one time got an invitation to appear on Oprah, but declined the offer because Ross wanted to do paintings for the audience, while the show wanted to focus on couples that are in business together, but do not live together.
Bob’s last TV appearance before his death on July 4, 1995, a pilot of The Adventures of Elmer & Friends, was recorded from his Florida home, as he was too weak to travel to Muncie, Indiana, where the rest of the program was shot in the studios of WIPB-TV.
Ross had two sons, Bob and Steven, with his first wife, Lynda Brown. Steven occasionally appeared on The Joy of Painting and became a Bob Ross–certified instructor. The last episode of Season 1 was a question-and-answer forum in which Steven read a series of general “how-to” questions sent in by viewers during the season, and Bob answered them one at a time, technique by technique, until he had completed an entire painting. Ross and Lynda’s marriage ended in divorce in 1981.
Ross and his second wife, Jane, had one son, Morgan, who is also an accomplished painter. In 1993, Jane died from cancer, and Ross would not remarry.
Ross was diagnosed with lymphoma in the early 1990s, forcing his retirement; The Joy of Painting’s final episode aired on May 17, 1994. He died at the age of 52 on July 4, 1995. His remains are interred at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Gotha, Florida.
- October, 29, 1942
- Daytona Beach, Florida
- July, 04, 1995
- New Smyrna Beach, Florida
- Woodlawn Memorial Park
- Gotha, Florida