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Robert Norman Ross (October 29, 1942 – July 4, 1995) was an American painter, art instructor and television host. He was the creator and host of The Joy of Painting, an instructional television program that aired from 1983 to 1994 on PBS in the United States and in Canada, Latin America and Europe. Ross subsequently became widely known via his internet presence.
Ross was born in Daytona Beach, Florida, to Jack and Ollie Ross, a carpenter and a waitress respectively, and raised in Orlando, Florida. As an adolescent, Ross cared for injured animals, including armadillos, snakes, alligators and squirrels, one of which was later featured in several episodes of his television show. He had a half-brother, Jim, whom he mentioned in passing on his show. Ross dropped out of high school in the 9th grade. While working as a carpenter with his father, he lost part of his left index finger, which did not affect his ability to later hold a palette while painting.:22
In 1961, 18-year-old Ross enlisted in the United States Air Force and was put into service as a medical records technician.:15 He rose to the rank of master sergeant and served as the first sergeant of the clinic at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, where he first saw the snow and mountains that later appear as recurring themes in his paintings. He developed his quick painting technique during brief daily work breaks. Having held military positions that required him to act tough and mean, "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 he would not raise his voice when he left the military.
Career as a painter
During his 20-year Air Force career, Ross developed an interest in painting after attending an art class at the Anchorage U.S.O. club. He found himself frequently at odds with many of his painting instructors, who were more interested in abstract painting. Ross said, "They'd tell you what makes a tree, but they wouldn't tell you how to paint a tree."
Ross was working as a part-time bartender when he discovered a TV show called The Magic of Oil Painting, hosted by German painter Bill Alexander.:17–18 Alexander used a 16th-century painting style called "alla prima" (Italian for "first attempt"), widely known as "wet-on-wet", that allowed him to create a painting within thirty minutes. Ross studied and mastered the technique, began painting and then successfully selling Alaskan landscapes that he would paint on novelty gold-mining pans. Eventually, Ross's income from sales surpassed his military salary. He retired from the Air Force in 1981 as a master sergeant.
He returned to Florida, studied painting with Alexander, joined his "Alexander Magic Art Supplies Company" and became a traveling salesman and tutor. Annette Kowalski, who had attended one of his sessions in Clearwater, Florida, convinced Ross he could succeed on his own. She, along with Ross and his wife, pooled their savings to create his company, which struggled at first.
Ross was noted for his permed hair, which he ultimately disliked but kept after he had integrated it into the company logo.:19
The origins of the TV show The Joy of Painting are unclear. It was filmed at the studio of the PBS station WIPB in Muncie, Indiana.
The show ran from January 11, 1983, to May 17, 1994, but reruns still continue to appear in many broadcast areas and countries, including the non-commercial digital subchannel network Create. In the United Kingdom, the BBC re-ran episodes during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 while most viewers were in lockdown at home.
During each half-hour segment, Ross would instruct viewers in the quick, wet on wet oil painting technique, painting a scene without sketching it first, but creating the image directly from his imagination, in real time. He explained his limited paint palette, deconstructing the process into simple steps.
Art critic Mira Schor compared Ross to Fred Rogers, host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, noting that Ross's soft voice and the slow pace of his speech were similar.
With help from Annette and Walt Kowalski, Ross used his television show to promote a line of art supplies and class recordings, building what would become a $15 million business – Bob Ross Inc. – which would ultimately expand to include classes taught by other artists trained in his methods. Following Ross's death, ownership of the company was passed to the Kowalskis.
Ross also filmed wildlife, squirrels in particular, usually in his garden, and he would often take in injured or abandoned squirrels and other animals. Small animals often appeared on his Joy of Painting canvasses.
Ross used a wet-on-wet oil painting technique of painting over a thin base layer of wet paint. The painting could progress without first drying. The technique used a limited selection of tools and colors that didn't require a large investment in expensive equipment. Ross frequently recommended odorless paint thinner (odorless mineral spirits) for brush cleaning.
Combining the wet painting method with the use of large one- and two-inch brushes, as well as painting knives, allowed the painter to quickly complete a landscape scene.
Ross painted three versions of almost every painting featured on his show. The first was painted prior to taping and sat on an easel off-camera during filming, where Ross used it as a reference to create the second copy which viewers actually watched him paint. After filming the episode, he painted a more detailed version for inclusion in his instructional books. The versions were each marked on the side or back of the canvas: "Kowalski" for the initial version, "tv" for the version painted during the TV show and "book" for the book version.
Ross dedicated the first episode of the second season of The Joy of Painting to Bill 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." As Ross's popularity grew, his relationship with Alexander became increasingly strained. "He betrayed me," Alexander told The New York Times in 1991. "I invented 'wet on wet', I trained him, and ... he thinks he can do it better." Art historians have pointed out that the "wet-on-wet" (or alla prima) technique actually originated in Flanders during the 15th century and was used by Frans Hals, Diego Velázquez, Caravaggio, Paul Cézanne, John Singer Sargent and Claude Monet, among many others. However, Alexander invented the step of priming the canvas with a liquid white paint (before starting to paint) and designed the style of palette knife employed, which is larger, firmer, and has one straight edge. Both inventions are fundamental for his wet-on-wet technique.
Ross was well known for phrases he tended to repeat while painting, such as "let's add some happy little trees".
In most episodes, Ross would note that he enjoyed cleaning his paint brush. He was fond of drying off a brush dipped in odorless thinner by striking it against the can of thinner, then striking it against a box (on early seasons of the show) and a trash can (on later seasons). Occasionally, he would strike the brush hard on the trash can, saying he "hit the bucket" and then on the easel. He would smile and often laugh aloud as he said to "beat the Devil out of it". He also used a lightly sanded palette to avoid reflections from the studio lighting.
Ross wore jeans and a button-down shirt, which he believed would be a timeless look, and spoke as if addressing one viewer.
When asked about his relaxed and calm approach, he said, "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."
The landscapes he painted, typically mountains, lakes, snow and log cabin scenes, were inspired by his years in Alaska, where he was stationed for the majority of his Air Force career. He repeatedly said everyone had inherent artistic talent and could become an accomplished artist given time, practice and encouragement. Ross would say, "we don't make mistakes; we just have happy accidents."
In 2014, the blog FiveThirtyEight analysed 381 episodes in which Ross painted live, concluding that 91% of Ross's paintings contained at least one tree, 44% included clouds, 39% included mountains and 34% included mountain lakes. By his own estimation, Ross completed more than thirty thousand paintings. His work rarely contained human subjects or signs of human life. On rare occasions, he would incorporate a cabin, sometimes with a chimney but without smoke, and possibly unoccupied.
Other media appearances
Ross was fond of country music and in 1987 was invited on stage by Hank Snow at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. The audience gave him a huge ovation; he was slightly nervous at first, but felt better after cracking a joke to the crowd. Snow was later given a private painting lesson by Ross.
Ross visited New York City to promote his hardcover book, The Best of the Joy of Painting with Bob Ross, and painting techniques to a studio audience several times. On one visit in 1989, he appeared on The Joan Rivers Show. He returned in 1992 for a live show with hosts Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford. In 1994, Ross appeared on the Phil Donahue Show and took five audience members on-stage to do a painting. Donahue also did a painting during that episode.
In the early 1990s, Ross did several MTV promotional spots that, according to the American City Business Journals, "dovetailed perfectly with Generation X's burgeoning obsession with all things ironic and retro".
In 1995, a visibly ill Ross made his final public television appearance as a guest on the pilot episode of the children's series The Adventures of Elmer and Friends. The series premiered in 1996, one year after Ross's death. The episode included a final message of thanks from Ross to his fans and viewers and a musical tribute.
Ross had one son, Robert Stephen "Steve" Ross, with his first wife, Vivian Ridge. Steve, also a talented painter, occasionally appeared on The Joy of Painting and became a Ross-certified instructor. Steve appeared on camera in the last episode of Season 1, in which he 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 Ridge's marriage ended in divorce in 1977. Ross and his second wife, Jane, had no children together. In 1992, Jane died of cancer. In 1995, two months before his death, Ross married for a third time, to Lynda Brown.
Ross was very secretive about his life and had a great liking for privacy. Some of only a few interviews with his close-knit circle of friends and family can be found in the 2011 PBS documentary Bob Ross: The Happy Painter. Bob Ross Inc. is protective of his intellectual property and his privacy to this day.
Ross died at the age of 52 on July 4, 1995, due to complications from lymphoma. His remains are interred at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Gotha, Florida, under a plaque marked "Bob Ross; Television Artist". Ross kept his diagnosis a secret from the general public; his lymphoma was not known outside of his circle of family and friends until after his death.