Bob Ross Owes His “Happy Little Trees” to This Forgotten Painter
Still from The Magic of Oil Painting, 1974-1982. Courtesy of Alexander Art.
Since his show, The Joy of Painting, first aired on PBS in 1983, Bob Ross has wooed viewers with speedy brushwork, a soothing cadence, and a very distinctive cloud of hair. His ever-sunny optimism has been a perennial selling point, too: “We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents,” he routinely cooed at his viewers.
While these qualities may seem distinctive to Ross, they in fact have a very clear precedent: Ross’s own mentor, a painter by the name of William “Bill” Alexander. It was Alexander who taught Ross how to complete a full landscape in under 30 minutes. It was Alexander who was the first to host a live painting show, The Magic of Oil Painting, on PBS. It was even Alexander who coined the catchphrase “happy little trees,” now largely attributed to Ross.
Indeed, Ross borrowed (or shamelessly copied, according to some disgruntled YouTube users) Alexander’s painting style, his business model, and even his lingo. But it’s only Ross, with his hippie ’fro and tranquilizing cadence, who’s remained a recognizable pop cultural force. Alexander and his riveting story, meanwhile, have fallen into obscurity. So who was the man who taught Ross? What made him tick? And why don’t we remember him?
A portrait of Bill’s family from Germany. Courtesy of Alexander Art.
Portrait of Bill. Courtesy of Alexander Art.
Alexander was born in East Prussia (present-day Germany) in 1915, as World War I spread across Europe. During his youth, he was surrounded by a landscape of “dead cows and machine guns bared and lying around and skeletons of soldiers half-buried with the boots sticking out of the ground,” he remembered in his autobiography. It was in this environment that he sought refuge in nature and, later, painting.
Even in his darkest moments, “he noticed the skylark, for its beautiful song,” explained Laurie Anderson, current owner of Alexander Art (a company inspired by Alexander’s work), who worked closely with him from 1986 until his death in 1997. “He was able to find beauty—and solace—in mother nature.”
Alexander’s first experience with painting came when a traveling artist visited the small, rural town where he was raised. Though the man wasn’t particularly skilled, he painted with impressive speed: “He sure was quick,” Alexander wrote in his autobiography.
Work by Bill Alexander. Courtesy of Alexander Art.
Alexander took on an apprenticeship and started painting carriages and murals for his wealthy neighbors. Later, inspired to pursue his own work, he began traveling around the country. During the day, he picked up portrait and landscape commissions; at night, he slept beneath the stars, or exchanged paintings for room and board.
This burgeoning painting career was waylaid when Alexander joined the German army at the dawn of World War II. However, it wasn’t long before fellow soldiers discovered his art skills. Alexander was captured by American forces, who, upon learning of his gift for painting, gave him a studio; there, he would paint portraits of his captors and their loved ones. Again, art offered relief to the warm, gregarious Alexander, as well as a means of connecting with people. “No matter what the circumstances, he always had hope,” Anderson said, “and painting was his vehicle.”
Encouraged by the generosity of the Westerners he met, Alexander immigrated to Canada after the war, in 1952. He dreamed of building a house and making his life as an artist, but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t be easy. For decades, he struggled to make ends meet.
Bill in his studio. Courtesy of Alexander Art.
In the freewheeling 1960s and ’70s, Alexander roved across Canada and the western United States with his wife, Margarete, using their Volkswagen bus as a home, studio, and gallery—he displayed his canvases in its big picture windows. Cursive hand-painted text on the side of the van announced Alexander as “The Old Master Painter from the Faraway Hills.”
Over time, Alexander had perfected the Old Master technique known as alla prima (or “wet-on-wet”), in which layers of wet paint are applied on top of one another in order to blend colors more quickly and easily. Intent on making the process his own, he invented shortcuts (brush flicks that could be used to quickly create trees and clouds, for instance), which expedited the process so much that, soon enough, Alexander was completing paintings in a fraction of the time it took his 16th-century predecessors.
To promote his work, Alexander set up his easel in Canadian malls and along California streets, attracting people in droves. They were drawn to his infectious enthusiasm for painting, which he described joyously, in a thick German accent, as an “almighty power” available to anyone. They were fascinated by his rapidly completed compositions, too; he mostly painted dreamy landscapes chock full of lush firs, fluffy clouds, and sherbet-hued sunsets. Requests for lessons streamed in, and Alexander happily accepted.
Class taught by Bill. Courtesy of Alexander Art.
Whenever he landed in Los Angeles during his travels, Alexander would teach an ever-increasing group of followers. According to his 1983 autobiography, he adored his students—like a woman named Yvette, who wore chic white gloves to every class, and Mr. Aikman, who painted with his French poodle in tow. Alexander believed that anyone could paint, and developed a teaching style that left students with artistic skills, as well as confidence.
One of the students whom Alexander attracted was Ross. Recently out of the army, a young Ross was on the hunt for a place to hone the nascent painting skills he’d picked up during his service. He took one of Alexander’s courses in California and was hooked: “I took one class and I went crazy,” Ross told the New York Times in 1991. “I knew this was what I wanted to do.” Alexander noticed Ross’s inherent skill, and took him on as something of an protege.
It was around this time, in the early 1970s, that Alexander received a fateful call. During his time in California (Los Angeles in particular), Alexander dreamed of disseminating painting to more people through television. “The reason he wanted to reach more people is that Bill, with every fiber of his being, believed that painting made people better,” explained Anderson. “He truly believed that if everyone painted, the world would be more peaceful—that there would be so much more beauty in the world.”
In late 1973, he got his wish. A new public broadcast station based in Huntington Beach, KOCE, invited Alexander to record a pilot. Despite his nervousness, he was a natural. He went on to have a nearly 10-year run as the host of his very own painting show. Each episode opened the same way: “Hello,” he said, with an ear-to-ear smile. “My name is Bill Alexander, and I can teach you how to paint.”
During each roughly 28-minute episode, Alexander completed a full painting using his expedited wet-on-wet technique. All the while, he spoke passionate words of encouragement to his viewers: “You are the leader of light! You are the mighty leader of light!” he bellowed in one segment, with nearly religious fervor. “Say it like that! Start shaking!” He also invited close looking of the environment, and deep engagement with it: “Do you know the trees are listening to you?” he’d ask the viewer. “I really have learned that! Beautiful!”
The show, dubbed The Magic of Oil Painting, was an almost-immediate success. By 1979, Alexander had even bagged an Emmy, becoming the first career painter to receive the famed television award. At the time, it seemed that Alexander’s days as a struggling artist were over. He had a wildly successful show, along with a line of painting supplies and how-to books. He was a household name in America. He’d made it.
But he was soon faced with a new challenge. Ross had started teaching his own wet-on-wet lessons, and a cohort of students and PBS executives took notice. His approach to painting was the same as Alexander’s, but his temperament was distinct. Instead of excitable, Ross was mesmerizingly calm, with a soft, lilting voice. His look was familiar and accessible, too; he wore beat-up jeans, flannel shirts, and a ’fro that harkened back to 1970s hippie culture. People not only loved him for his deft painting skills, but for his ability to put them at ease. By 1983, PBS had replaced Alexander’s show with The Joy of Painting, hosted by Ross.
In 1982, to plug the new show, PBS ran a commercial that showed Alexander passing a brush—the TV painter’s proverbial torch—to Ross: “I hand off my mighty brush to a mighty man, and that is Bob Ross,” Alexander exclaimed. “Thank you very much Bill,” Ross responded, with typical tranquility.
In the first episode of The Joy of Painting’s second season, Ross paid homage to Alexander: “Years ago, Bill taught me this fantastic technique, and I feel as though he gave me a precious gift. I’d like to share that gift with you.” Alexander also went onto co-host another show for PBS, The Art of Bill Alexander & Robert Warren, which ran from 1984 until 1992. Even so, in a 1991 profile on Ross, Alexander made clear to the New York Times that he felt jilted by his one-time apprentice: “I trained him and he is copying me—what bothers me is not just that he betrayed me, but that he thinks he can do it better.”
Bill painting. Courtesy of Alexander Art.
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.”
More recently, Ross impersonators have shown up on the very popular YouTube series “Epic Rap Battles of History” and in the cult Hollywood blockbuster Deadpool. Both poke light fun at Ross’s meditative tone.
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.”
Correction: A previous version of this article suggested that Alexander was no longer on television after “The Magic of Oil Painting” stopped being aired in 1982. Alexander co-hosted “The Art of Bill Alexander & Robert Warren”on PBS from 1984 to 1992.