How Bob Ross Became Everyone’s Favorite Art Teacher
Portrait of Bob Ross. Courtesy of Bob Ross Inc.
In 2013, a pair of enterprising YouTubers decided to pit two artists against each other in a fictional rap battle. On one side was an actor playing Pablo Picasso, perhaps the globe’s most acclaimed painter, who changed the course of art history with Cubism. His opponent was an actor playing Bob Ross, an artist who, in many ways, is Picasso’s antithesis.
An early ’90s-era TV personality, Ross taught viewers how to paint the sort of sweet landscapes you might see hanging in a laundromat or dive bar. He didn’t revolutionize academic art or show in museums, but he did amass a fan base that’s arguably as passionate as Picasso’s—and maybe even larger. It includes everyone from kids to octogenarians, insomniacs to Hollywood directors, and amateur painters to MFA-toting artists.
Case in point, since the aforementioned video first hit YouTube, it’s racked up over 33 million views and almost 90,000 comments. Most of them read like love notes to Ross—not Picasso: “Daddy Ross won,” “Bob can’t lose, silly,” and “I think that, we all know in our hearts, that Bob Ross and his happy little trees are the ultimate winners...”
So what is it about Bob Ross that’s inspired a contemporary cult following that rivals that of the globe’s most famous artists?
Ross’s ascent to fame began with The Joy of Painting, a public access show where he famously guided viewers through painting things like “happy little trees.” He was quick with his brush and clear with his instructions. By the end of each 26-minute episode, he’d completed an idyllic forest scene, a secluded beachscape, or, his personal favorite, a dramatic mountain vista bordered by miniature clouds, conifers, and the occasional soaring bird.
But as pretty as Ross’s canvases were, and as quickly as he worked, viewers fell for Ross himself. His permed mop of hair was equal parts funny and charming, an anachronistic relic of 1970s hippiedom. So was his laid-back get-up (chambray shirt casually unbuttoned to the mid-chest, jeans), his soothing voice (once compared to the effects of Demerol), and his signature words of encouragement: “We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents.”
Ross’s accessible traits could make a person feel comfortable, calm, included, and confident. Even today, over 20 years after his death and the final airings of The Joy of Painting in 1994, his following remains strong (spurred recently by the availability of all 403 of his episodes on YouTube and some on Netflix).
“He really empowered his viewers,” artist and St. Joseph’s University photography professor Krista Svalbonas told me from her home in Philadelphia. “I made horrible Bob Ross paintings, but he did really make me feel like anything was possible.”
He made art less intimidating
This kind of tribute is echoed by a chorus of Ross’s acolytes. To many, he’s offered an un-intimidating introduction to art, which they’ve been able to access from the comfort of their living rooms—which may be far-flung from the nearest museum or art school.
Take New York-based painter and Spring/Break Art Show co-founder Ambre Kelly, who grew up in a small town of South Carolina. Kelly’s Southern Baptist parents let her watch almost anything on PBS, a TV station free of the racier content that had started popping up on cable channels, like the then-budding MTV. There, she could tune in for kid-friendly programs like Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but she found herself gravitating towards Ross’s The Joy of Painting instead.
She felt comfortable with Ross. “It was his Southern twang, his bohemian perm, his jean-shirt and jean-pants combos. A native of Daytona Beach, he was more my people,” she remembered. “He seemed like an optimist, a guy who would never let anything get him down.”
British, Los Angeles-based artist Neil Raitt was also drawn to Ross’s show from a young age, via television as a kid growing up in London. “One of the main things that stands out to me about Bob Ross is his very reassuring, humble and positive attitude,” he explained. “The idea is not so much that he is teaching you, rather that you are painting together.”
Indeed, Ross’s welcoming, positive demeanor has become legendary, and offered a gateway into artmaking. He began each episode by inviting viewers, as Raitt noted, to paint with him—not for him or in his shadow. “Let me extend a personal invitation for you to drag out your little paint brushes and some paints and paint along with us each show,” he said, smiling wide, in one segment. “Or just drag up the old easy chair and enjoy a relaxing half hour as we place some of nature’s masterpieces on canvas.”
He pared painting down to simple steps
Ross’s world wasn’t a pressurized one, where productivity or mastery was the goal. He made making art look easy and fun. And with him at your side, it was.
It was with this affable, down-home teacher that Kelly began painting. “I didn't have access to a lot of art in my small town. His show was my art education,” she explained. With Ross’s help, she learned how to mix colors, apply paint to canvas, and wield Ross’s signature fan brush. Raitt, too, gleaned some technical skills from Ross: “Such as perspective, and the knowledge that comes with using his palette of colors,” he noted.
Ross’s instruction was based on an age-old oil painting technique called wet-on-wet or alla prima, which allowed artists to blend colors fluidly by applying them on top of each other while still wet. It cropped up as early as the 15th century, and was adopted by painters like Caravaggio, Paul Cézanne, and Claude Monet.
The process was particularly well-suited to short TV episodes, as it doesn’t require drying time between the application of different colors. Ross’s mentor, Bill Alexander, was one of the first to bring wet-on-wet instruction to television in the 1970s. He, too, had a PBS show. It was dubbed The Magic of Oil Painting and ran from 1974 until 1982.
Ross had started painting while enlisted in the United States Air Force, and subsequently fell in love with making art. After he left the military, he sought out an instructor in Alexander. And when Alexander’s show came to an end in 1982, Ross carried on the torch. In a promotional spot for Ross’s new program, Alexander ceremoniously handed him “the brush.” (Later, a rivalry developed between the two, sparked by Ross’s wild success, which arguably eclipsed Alexander’s legacy.)
Despite the venerable origins of wet-on-wet painting, Ross (and Alexander before him) made the process seem simple. His toolbox was pared down and accessible. He used brushes that were easy to source in any art supply or craft store, and just 12 paint colors: Titanium White, Phthalo Green (or Midnight Black), Phthalo Blue, Prussian Blue, Dark Sienna, Van Dyke Brown, Alizarin Crimson, Sap Green, Cadmium Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Indian Yellow, and Bright Red.
With each dab or swish of paint, Ross announced the hue or type of brush he was using. He also cooed words of support. A phrase as nonchalant as “Ooh, that’s nice” could make a viewer smile and happily forge on with their canvas. In step, amateur painters followed along to construct the scenes Ross seemed to create so effortlessly. It often took them longer to finish than the length of an episode, but they’d get there eventually.
He inspired confidence
Installation view from Brendan Lynch's exhibition, “Mountains Collection,” at Howard St. Courtesy of the artist.
The accessibility of Ross’s teaching method was just one facet of his appeal, though. Many viewers lapped up his words and applied them to their art practices more conceptually, or to their lives more philosophically.
In between instructing pupils to add foam to a wave, or needles to a pine tree, Ross would often remind them of their agency. “It’s your world. We just show you how, but you make the decisions,” he’d often say. He was there as a guide, he’d remind students, encouraging them to experiment beyond his palette and style, and to take the painting anywhere they wanted.
Phrases like these were confidence building and inspiring, both on the canvas and off. Even after Kelly found new art teachers and mentors in college, Ross’s words of encouragement stuck with her. “My biggest takeaway to my current practice: talking to myself,” she admitted. “When I pull a good line out of the brush, or get the light right on the face or the shadows in the trees, I actually say exclamatory (maybe even congratulatory) things to myself, as if Bob Ross is watching me paint.”
When Svalbonas finds herself in the throes of artist’s block, she calls on Ross’s encouraging (if charmingly cheesy) axioms, like “The secret to doing anything is believing that you can do it.”
“I find many of his statements invaluable, especially when I’m at a crossroads in my practice,” she explained.
She’s also found Ross’s philosophy particularly applicable to her role as a professor. “I’ve certainly incorporated his positivity into my teaching,” she continues. “I’m not always as gentle as Bob, but I do believe that anything is possible if you try. I avidly encourage my students follow their passions and experiment.”
He reminded us that art should be available to everyone
Other artists like Raitt have been attracted to the populist nature of Ross’s show and the art he made. During art school, when Raitt became interested in the idea of craft and how it related to painting, he was reminded of Ross’s practice. “I was intrigued by the very craft-like nature of Bob Ross’s approach to painting,” he explained of his reintroduction to Ross. The TV painter’s step-by-step method was in opposition to the “more fluid, visceral notion of art” that he was being taught at university. “The idea of placing these rules around [art]—a start and finish point, without much existential dread in between—was an attractive idea at the time.”
Since then, Raitt has incorporated Ross’s gestures into his work as a means of exploring painting’s relationship to themes like artificiality, domesticity, and comfort. In an exhibition up now at Galerie Valentin in Paris, paintings filled with patterns of mini-landscapes inspired by Ross’s paintings act as a sort of wallpaper covering the white cube gallery. “The entrance is suggestive of a living space, perhaps the place in which one might pull up their easy chair and paint along to an episode of The Joy of Painting,” he explained.
Los Angeles-based artist Brendan Lynch has also made work that draws from what he considers to be the democratic nature of Ross’s work, and of landscape painting in general. Like so many before him, Lynch was first intrigued by Ross’s role as a pop icon: “People dressing up as him on Halloween, his face on ironic t-shirts, him as a silly kitsch character,” Lynch remembered. But as he watched more and more episodes of The Joy of Painting, he began to realize that Ross was much more than his curly hair, his hippie drawl, or the commercial swag inspired by them.
Lynch had long been interested in the paintings found on walls of bodegas and restaurants or stacked up in thrift stores. He dubbed them “anonymous works of art,” or pieces “that exist in contexts that don’t allow you to engage with painting in the same way you would if you were to see it in a museum,” he explained. “I always loved those paintings and tried to look at them with the same respect and seriousness I would with art in any other context.”
In Ross’s canvases and approach, Lynch saw similarities to these anonymous artworks. Soon, he began making paintings based on Ross’s instructions, then gifting them to little restaurants, bodegas, and laundromats around New York City, where he was then living. “I wanted to give back to this language I felt like I was taking from,” Lynch said of the project. “Instead just making these paintings and putting them in a gallery context, I thought it was more interesting to place them back into an environment where they thrive.”
Lynch also made Ross paintings on a large 6-by-7-foot scale, and created a 2015 installation inspired by the artist’s landscapes and his legacy. It was filled with canvases depicting natural scenes sourced from thrift stores, Sunday painters, well-known artists, even Ross himself. (Ross’s company, which still exists today, lent Lynch the piece.)
For Lynch, this wide range of work tapped into Ross’s ethos: that art can and should be accessible to anyone. “The politics behind his work mirrored things I strive to do in a contemporary art setting: break down hierarchies, make art accessible, make it something that people shouldn’t be scared to engage with,” Lynch explained.
That idea, at its core, is what’s kept Ross’s fan base—or rather, his student body—alive, passionate, and growing. “Galleries can be intimidating, and Bob was doing the opposite,” Lynch continued. “He was saying, ‘No, everyone can do this. You should all try this. And guess what, it’s really fun!’”