Indeed, as Austin Kleon, artist and author of Steal Like an Artist
, has put it
, “Ross was so good at sharing Alexander’s gift” that Ross’s Joy of Painting
became more popular than Alexander’s original. A decade after Ross’s first episode aired, “being Bob Ross was a $15 million dollar industry,” Kleon continued.
While Alexander Art—the company that sells the painting supplies popularized by Alexander, along with lessons inspired by his process—operated until his death and continues to offer products and online courses today, Alexander’s own legacy has faded in comparison to that of his protégé. This may be because, as Kleon has pointed out
, a 1980s and ’90s audience was more comfortable with Ross’s laid-back, American-bred attitude than Alexander’s approach, which was more fiery and regimented.
It may also be because Ross’s nostalgically groovy look is more easily satirized. In 1993, a then-very-cheeky MTV plugged Ross to host a commercial for the network, which concluded with the painter cooing: “MTV, the land of happy little trees.”
Or perhaps it has something to do with today’s image- and stimuli-saturated culture, in which many people are gravitating towards entertainment that soothes, rather than stimulates. YouTube recently re-released all 403 of Ross’s Joy of Painting
episodes to rave reviews
, while the popular meditation and wellness app Calm recently released a “sleep story” (the program’s version of a bedtime story) using recordings of Ross’s voice. “We’ve had so many Calm users asking us for a Sleep Story with Bob Ross,” Alex Tew, Calm’s co-founder, said
in a press release. “He was and still is a hero to the hard of sleeping.”
While Ross’s soothing demeanor and his distinctive hair were certainly his own, other aspects of his appeal were no doubt gleaned from Alexander. Perhaps most influentially, Ross adopted Alexander’s affirmative, approachable teaching technique: one emphasizing that art was available to all and, if practiced, could inspire creativity, optimism, and appreciation of the surrounding world.
Even though Alexander has been overshadowed by Ross’s status as a pop culture phenom, his legacy as an instructor who made painting more accessible—to more people—can still be seen in a smattering of The Magic of Oil Painting episodes available on YouTube.
“When you learn to paint, you learn to see, and you learn to appreciate beauty around you. That’s what drove Bill,” explained Anderson. “As long as he could get in front of more people, and let people know his philosophy, which was that he always dreamed of a better tomorrow, he was happy.”