10 Happy Little Facts About The Joy of Painting
By Sarene Leeds
The smooth jazz intro. The calm, welcoming voice. The larger-than-life hair. The low-budget production values. The constant encouragement that even you can create the same fan-brushed “happy little trees” as the jovial onscreen instructor. We’re talking about none other than the long-running PBS series The Joy of Painting, which, 35 years after its debut, continues to both engage and relax audiences via digital outlets like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and YouTube.
It was a simple enough premise: Each half-hour episode would feature host Bob Ross demonstrating—in real time—how to create a bucolic landscape (popular vistas included mountains, streams, and forests) using a specific palette of oil paints that would become as iconic as Ross himself. (Seriously, The Joy of Painting could’ve been renamed Titanium White or Prussian Blue and devoted fans would’ve just gone with it.)
Although the series ceased production in 1994—several months before Ross’s untimely death from lymphoma at age 52—The Joy of Painting is showing zero signs of fading into obscurity. Not only is the show ridiculously easy to access, but it also spawned a 2011 documentary, Bob Ross: The Happy Painter (where celebrities like Jane Seymour and Brad Paisley are outed among the Bob Ross acolytes), merchandise galore (including a Funko POP! toy), and a veritable YouTube rabbit hole of hilarious parodies.
So pull up an easy chair and get ready to chillax with these 10 facts about The Joy of Painting, where mistakes didn’t exist, only happy accidents.
1. BEFORE THE JOY OF PAINTING WITH BOB ROSS, THERE WAS THE MAGIC OF OIL PAINTING WITH BILL ALEXANDER.
Sometimes, all it takes to surpass your mentor is a gentle voice and one wild coiffure. Much as history likes to peg Bob Ross as an innovator, his art-for-the-masses television show was nothing new by the time The Joy of Painting premiered in 1983. For nearly a decade prior, PBS stations had been airing a similar series called The Magic of Oil Painting, hosted by German painter Bill Alexander. Ross himself was intrigued by the show and its signature “wet-on-wet” technique, and soon began studying under Alexander.
But this student-teacher relationship would eventually dissolve into a rivalry once Ross’s series took off and Alexander was relegated to a footnote in TV history. In a 1991 article in The New York Times, Alexander, who died in 1997, had harsh words for his onetime protégé.
"He betrayed me," Alexander said of Ross. “I invented ‘wet on wet.’ 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.” (For the record, Alexander did not invent the “wet on wet,” or “alla prima” method; it has been in existence for more than 500 years.)
2. FOR A SIGNIFICANT PORTION OF HIS LIFE, BOB ROSS WAS THE EQUIVALENT OF R. LEE ERMEY’S VICIOUS DRILL SERGEANT IN FULL METAL JACKET.
Who would’ve thought that the same guy who became a celebrity off his soft-spoken, hippie-dippy demeanor also spent nearly 20 years in the military barking orders to his subordinates? After joining the Air Force at the age of 18, Ross rose to the rank of First Sergeant, or, as he called it in a 1990 interview with The Orlando Sentinel, “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.”
But Ross knew deep down he wasn’t cut out for a career as a hard-ass: “The job requires you to be a mean, tough person,” the Florida native told the Sentinel. "And I was fed up with it. I promised myself that if I ever got away from it, it wasn’t going to be that way anymore.” He was right: While stationed in Alaska, Ross discovered his love for painting, and by the time he retired from the Air Force in 1981, a far more fulfilling job lay ahead.
3. ROSS’S ICONIC HAIRDO WAS INITIALLY A COST-CUTTING MEASURE.
Nope, Ross wasn’t trying to make an ironic fashion statement with his outdated hair. He was just a guy looking to save a few bucks while pursuing a painting career after leaving the Air Force. According to Annette Kowalski, Ross’s longtime business partner, the eventual Joy of Painting host got his hair permed as a way of avoiding regular hair maintenance. “He got this bright idea that he could save money on haircuts,” Kowalski told NPR in 2016. “So he let his hair grow, he got a perm, and decided he would never need a haircut again.”
What Ross didn’t count on was his perm’s, well, permanence: Once that look became part of his company’s logo—and The Joy of Painting—there was no turning back, and per Kowalski, it was a thorn in Ross’ side. “He could never, ever, ever change his hair, and he was so mad about that,” she said. “He got tired of that curly hair.”
4. THAT POUFY BROWN HAIR CAN NOW BE PART OF YOUR BREAKFAST.
We're not sure how Ross would’ve felt about having his face charred onto folks’ morning toast, but it’s now an option for The Joy of Painting fans and people with breakfast idiosyncrasies. For the price of $40, you can own a toaster that will burn Ross’s immediately recognizable visage onto a couple of slices of bread.
5. SINCE THE JOY OF PAINTING IS ARGUABLY AN EARLY FORM OF ASMR, THE SHOW IS ENJOYING A 21ST-CENTURY REBOOT AS A RELAXATION APP.
In June 2018, it was announced that episodes of The Joy of Painting would be reborn as versions of “Sleep Stories” on the Calm sleep and meditation app. It was the first time that Bob Ross Inc., which manages Ross’s estate, had agreed to license audio of the series, citing the high likelihood of the painting guru’s approval.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What would Bob do?’” Joan Kowalski, president of Bob Ross Inc. (and daughter of Ross’s business partners Walt and Annette Kowalski), told the Times. “Using his voice to help put people to sleep? Well, he would love that.” This couldn’t have been a better marriage of commerce and tranquility, because Ross, his comforting voice and The Joy of Painting had been honorary members of the ASMR (“autonomous sensory meridian response”) community for years.
6. IF YOU’RE A JOY OF PAINTING COMPLETIST, THEN YOUTUBE IS YOUR BEST SOURCE FOR EPISODES.
The addition of The Joy of Painting to Netflix in 2016 was the cause of both excitement and confusion for viewers. The reason for the excitement was obvious, but the confusion was due to Netflix’s decision to repackage the episodes as two separate, differently named series: Chill With Bob Ross and Bob Ross: Beauty Is Everywhere. Don’t let these catchy titles fool you though, because they’re just fancy names for 52 episodes of The Joy of Painting.
However, if after binge-watching all of Bob Ross that Netflix (and Hulu and Amazon Prime; several seasons are available to subscribers) have to offer, and you still have an irrepressible hunger for more seascapes and woodland vistas, head on over to the official Bob Ross YouTube channel, where you will be able to watch all 403 episodes of The Joy of Painting—for free.
7. WANT TO TEACH THE BOB ROSS TECHNIQUE? YOU’LL HAVE TO BECOME A CERTIFIED ROSS INSTRUCTOR FIRST.
If you live and breathe The Joy of Painting and enjoy preaching Bob Ross’s happy little trees gospel, then perhaps becoming a Certified Ross Instructor is in your future. But don’t think that this program will be as laid-back as a Joy of Painting episode—quite the opposite. The official website for Bob Ross Inc. warns prospective students that “training is intense,” a sentiment echoed by this 2015 HuffPost article. One instructor called the experience “grueling,” emphasizing that the program is “fast-paced and pretty hard. If you are not paying attention, you get lost.”
8. THE JOY OF PAINTING HAS INSPIRED MULTIPLE PARODIES, INCLUDING A DEADPOOL 2 TEASER.
As lovable as Bob Ross is, his style and folksy manner do lend themselves to satire. But when sifting through the innumerable spoofs available on YouTube, anyone can see that they’re made out of love, not disdain—even this NSFW “Joy of Tattooing” clip—for The Joy of Painting.
In late 2017, 20th Century Fox hopped on the R-rated The Joy of Painting parody bandwagon when the studio released a Deadpool 2 teaser featuring star Ryan Reynolds doing an impeccable Bob Ross impression—entirely from beneath his masked bodysuit. While most of the jokes are unprintable, let’s just say Reynolds’s take on how Ross cleaned his paintbrushes was nothing short of genius.
9. THE JOY OF PAINTING IS AT THE CENTER OF A NEW TREND: PAINT-ALONGS AT LOCAL LIBRARIES.
It sounds like something that might have happened during The Joy of Painting’s 1980s heyday: Crowds of people gathering at the library to watch Bob Ross paint wispy clouds while putting their own brushes to canvas. But this analog activity is a very real craze happening right in the digital depths of 2018. Back in July, The Washington Post reported that across the United States, there are now six-month-long waiting lists at certain local libraries just for the privilege of watching an episode of The Joy of Painting—and painting along with the show’s bushy-haired master.
This latest Bob Ross renaissance can be chalked up to the divisive headlines permeating the country, at least according to one Salt Lake City librarian who helps organize these paint-alongs. “In these times when everything seems so controversial and everyone fighting with each other and all of this bad news all the time—it’s very uplifting to hear [Ross’ positive quips],” Jen Scott told the Post. “People feel this connection with Bob Ross—that he’s their friend.”
10. BOB ROSS BAR CRAWLS ARE ALSO A THING, APPARENTLY.
The New York Times brought this phenomenon to the world’s attention back in 2015, when it reported on a now-defunct annual Chicago event that saw attendees dressing in curly wigs, facial hair (both men and women, mind you), jeans, and oxford shirts to traipse around various watering holes in honor of Bob Ross. Although the Windy City Bob Ross Bar Crawl has ceased operation (the last post to its Facebook page was in September 2017), others have since popped up in the Cleveland area and in Macon, Georgia.