Bob Ross: The Life, and Death, of an Idol

Claire S., Writer

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Everyone has seen this man with his brush in one hand, and a palette in the other, whisking away at the new landscape he was about to make. With his signature afro, and calm, hushed voice, anyone who watched this would fall into a lull whenever you heard the brush on the canvas, or the tone of his voice.  He has inspired countless young -and old- artists everywhere. Even the ones who never once picked up a brush, were soothed by his voice. He is truly a television wonder.



Robert Norman Ross or “Bob Ross” was born in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1942. Bob Ross lived with his mother, Ollie, a waitress, and his father, Jack, a builder and carpenter. He never really shared many stories about his childhood, but we do know that he liked to work with his father in the wood shop.  He decided to drop out of high school as a freshman to work with his father full-time. During that time period, he had a incident with the band saw and he chopped off the tip of his left index finger. Later when he was on his television show The Joy of Painting, he held his palette in such a way that it covered his left finger.  He also loved animals. As a teenager, he would secretly keep exotic pets such as armadillos and alligators, a trait most likely coming from his mother. In some of his shows, his gray pet squirrel would make an appearance. “If we’re going to have animals around, we all have to be concerned about them and take care of them,Bob Ross would say.



At the age of 18, Bob Ross enrolled in the Air Force and was given the job as a medical records technician. He was moved from his home town in Florida, to Fairbanks, Alaska, a whole different world from his usual. He stayed in the military until he was about 38 years old.  As he was working in the military, he worked well and hard enough to receive regular promotions. Promotions are usually great, but he didn’t think that way in this job. “[I had to be] 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.” Feeling like this demanding work and tone of voice was not in his nature, he left the military and promised to never raise his voice again. To relieve the stress he received from the military, and to earn a bit of extra money, he picked up painting.

   Starting to paint

While in the military, Bob Ross would sell landscapes inside of gold mining pans. When his profit from his paintings surpassed the wage he was earning in the military, he decided to become a full-time artist. The art class he first went to embraced abstract art, and not the expansive landscapes like he paints. “They’d tell you what makes a tree, but they wouldn’t tell you how to paint a tree.” he said. Bob Ross argued with the art teachers for a while before he decided to take a different class. He had been watching another artist on television named Bill Alexander for awhile, and his style perfectly matched his. Alexander uses a technique called wet on wet where you paint in a short 30 minute painting without waiting for the layers to dry. When Bob Ross heard he was giving classes, he rushed back over to Florida where Alexander worked, and Alexander gladly took him in.  After Alexander retired, he let Bob Ross take over his company and appointed him as his successor.



Bob Ross did not have very much money between when he left the military and when he started his show.  When Alexander took him in as a traveling tutor for his business, he managed to only get a few payed classes. “He got this bright idea that he could save money on haircuts. So he let his hair grow, he got a perm, and decided he would never need a haircut again.” said Bob Ross’s former business partner, Annette Kowalski.


The Joy of Painting

Annette Kowalski was traveling down to Florida to meet Alexander, and had just recently lost her child in a car crash. Once she took a art lesson from Bob Ross, she was immediately soothed by his voice and forgot all about the earlier incident. “I was so mesmerized by Bob. Somehow, he lifted me up out of that depression….I just think that Bob knew how to woo people.”. Annette saw Bob Ross this as an opportunity to “put it in a bottle and sell it.” She partnered with him to create his hit show: The Joy of Painting. The Joy of Painting aired for the first time on PBS in January of 1983. He kept to his promise and never raised his voice on the show. Even with his quiet voice, he still had a firm hand on his show.  He would practice one liners at night and he even found time to fix little things like sanding his palette ever so lightly so the bright studio lights don’t cause a glare, making the show more enjoyable. But that didn’t stop him from doing the things he liked to do. “They say everything looks better with odd numbers of things. But sometimes I put even numbers—just to upset the critics.” said Bob Ross.


The Joy of Painting lasted from 1983-1984, approximately 11 years. In that time frame, he received millions of fans that adored his work. Everyone loved his light humor, calming voice, and extravagant landscapes that he would pull out of thin air. They loved him so much, that he and his show broadcasted to approximately 257 different television stations. In total, he had filmed 403 episodes, and about 28 seasons in total.  Surprisingly, he never took a paycheck from PBS, and earned all his money through his company: Bob Ross Inc. He donated all his paintings to PBS to sell at their charity auctions. He had also decided to keep the colors and brushes that he used at a minimum, so beginners could jump right in. He always used the exact same colors: Alizarin Crimson, Bright Red, Cadmium Yellow Hue, Dark Sienna, Indian Yellow, Midnight Black, Phthalo Blue, Phthalo Green, Prussian Blue, Sap Green, Titanium White, Van Dyke Brown and Yellow Ochre. As everyone knows, “Titanium White” was this iconic color. Not late after he started to film, Bob Ross approved palettes and brushes and paints where on thousands of shelves across America. He also had a line of books that sold crazy too. He even had a Bob Ross chia pet! Everyone loved Bob Ross and he soon became an iconic figure in the United States, and across the world.


Interesting Facts

Bob Ross may have kept a lot from the public, but that didn’t keep him from telling us his little quirks. For one thing, he hates his perm, but it became such an iconic item that he had to keep it. In addition, he was a fast worker. He could bang out a 13-episode season in only two days, and painted over 30,000 paintings in total. No wonder he has so many shows! He also painted 3 paintings per show, one to keep as reference during the show, one that he was painting to the audience, and one that he took his time on that would be displayed in his books and merchandise. In Addition, only 10% of viewers actually painted along with him, while the other 90% tuned in just to watch him. As I stated before, he loved to keep exotic pets when he was young, and kept that love as he got older. Once, he kept a live alligator in his bathtub! There where also special guests on his shows including his pet gray squirrel, and a baby bird. Lastly, he actually loved trees. 91% of his paintings have at least one tree in them. Thats a lot of happy trees!



In 1994, Bob Ross was diagnosed with lymphoma, a rare cancer. The cancer goes through the blood system and attacks the lymphatic system. The lymph nodes and glands, along with a array of vessels, are an important part of the body’s circulatory functions that helps your immune system. Some people have shown little to no symptoms when they receive the cancer, but we do not know how much Bob Ross suffered from it. He kept this announcement a secret to the world, and only told his close friends and family. Apparently, he painted on The Joy of Painting until his very last days. Sadly, the news was announced that Bob Ross died in 1995 at the age of 52. It brought a wave of sadness over the whole country. He was buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Gotha, Florida, near his childhood home. His simple gravestone reads “Bob Ross, Television Artist”.



He may not be related to me, but he still inspires me nevertheless. I consider myself and artist and sometimes try to follow his lead and paint masterpieces too (although I am not very good at it). Even when I do not feel like raising a brush, this voice helps me calm down and focus.  

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Bob Ross: The Life, and Death, of an Idol