With his unbridled positivity, calmingly sincere demeanor, and characteristic afro, Bob Ross brought art into the homes of millions. While he can hardly be considered a virtuoso of impasto, chiaroscuro, or any other esoteric technique, he is responsible for a monumental shift in the world of art. Merging entertainment, education, and ingenuity, Bob Ross successfully brought painting out of the academy and into mainstream culture. 

At the age of 18, Bob Ross enlisted in the United States Air Force where he took his first ever painting class. During his tour in Alaska, Ross spent each and every free moment honing this craft, selling compositions of the state’s scenery to tourists. Upon his retirement from the armed forces, Ross began taking lessons from Bill Alexander, the host of a PBS show The Magic of Oil Painting which would eventually become Ross’ very own The Joy of Painting. Airing from 1983 to 1994, every live episode of this 31–season saga featured Ross completing a landscape oil painting from start to finish. Using the wet–on–wet technique learned from Alexander, Ross was able to complete entire compositions within each of his half–hour segments. By layering wet oil paints rather than waiting for each layer to dry, he balanced brevity and audience engagement with refinement. 

Blue Ridge Falls (1994) by Bob Ross/photo courtesy of NYT

However, his impressive streams, mountain ranges, and horizons were not the only aspects propelling Ross to be the topic of dinner table conversations worldwide. With his soothing voice, serene disposition, and ceaseless optimism, Bob Ross’ authentic character traits are what made the show a cult classic. For aspiring artists, Bob Ross’ lessons offered a window into an exclusive, high–brow club that only those with the right resources could previously access. Acting as the public’s mentor, Bob Ross made the process of painting accessible to anyone with a TV rather than something only for the most wealthy or most educated. Just like a supportive teacher standing in each viewer’s living room, Ross encouraged amateur painters, saying “you too can paint almighty pictures.” 

While many people did use his episodes as personal art lessons, others also watched them without ever picking up a painting brush. Ross’ landscape compositions when coupled with his distinctive personality could be sensed even through the screen—engaging viewers who used his series purely for entertainment and relaxation purposes. 

Despite the artist’s tragic death in 1995, his legacy lives on in popular culture. Themed beauty products, Monopoly sets, and decks of Magic the Gathering cards are just a few examples of ways each and every individual can bring Bob Ross back into their everyday lives. With an immersive museum dedicated to the late artist in Indiana as well as a few of his paintings hanging in the Smithsonian, Bob Ross has also made a lasting mark on the art world. 

Bob Ross with Clapperboard/photo courtesy of Visit Indiana

Remarkably, despite his simple and unpretentious style of painting, Bob Ross has become one of the most famous artists of the 20th century. His laid back attitude, accessibility, and comforting process appeal to and continue to appeal to millions. With over 4.5 million subscribers, the official Bob Ross Youtube channel streams episodes of The Joy of Painting—allowing viewers to experience his magical aura again or for the first time. A father figure for many, Bob Ross was known to detail life lessons and mantras throughout his episodes. Often telling viewers “You can do anything you want to do. This is your world,” he made—and continues to make—this quote a reality for millions. 


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