by catherine peters September 28, 2020 4 min read
An American painter, art tutor and television host, Bob Ross is now a household name. Ross created and hosted “The Joy of Painting’ an instructional television programme that aired from 1983 to 1994 in the United States.
It was during his 20-year Air Force career, Ross developed an interest in painting, attending art classes whilst based in Alaska. He found himself frequently at odds with many of his painting instructors, who were more interested in abstract painting. Ross was noted saying "They'd tell you what makes a tree, but they wouldn't tell you how to paint a tree."
Ross discovered a TV show ‘The Magic of Painting’ TV show hosted by a German painter ‘Bill Alexander’. Alexander used a 16th-century oil painting style called “Alla Prima”, Italian for "first attempt”, widely known as "wet-on-wet", that allowed him to create a painting within thirty minutes.
Ross studied and mastered the technique, using the wet-on-wet oil painting technique of painting over a thin base layer of wet paint. The painting could progress without first drying. The technique used a limited selection of tools and colours that didn't require a large investments in expensive equipment. Ross frequently recommended odourless paint thinner for brush cleaning, combining the wet painting method with the use of large one and two inch brushes, as well as painting knives, allows the painter to quickly complete a landscape scene.
Successfully selling Alaskan landscapes to tourists, Ross’s income from art sales surpassed his military salary and he retired from the Air Force in 1981 as a Master Sergeant.
Returning to his hometown of Florida, he studied painting with Bill Alexander, joining his "Alexander Magic Art Supplies Company" becoming a successful traveling salesman and tutor, hosting painting sessions for the company.
Annette Kowalski, who had attended one of his sessions, convinced Ross he could succeed on his own. She, along with Ross and his wife, pooled their savings to create his company, which struggled at first but eventually became a $15 million business.
Ross projected a loveable hippie persona, sporting a permed afro (which due to the iconic logo used across all products and TV shows, was unable to change) denim shirts and jeans along with a soothing and intimate speaking voice that made the viewer feel as if it were a personal, one-on-one painting lesson. He also amazed viewers with his effortless painting method, creating detailed landscapes over the course of 30 minutes with the help of a house-painting brush and a palette knife, chatting and offering words of encouragement as he painted.
Over the years, his folksy approach and references to “happy little” trees and clouds endeared him further to his fans. He repeatedly said everyone had inherent artistic talent and could become an accomplished artist given time, practice and encouragement. Ross would say, "we don't make mistakes; we just have happy accidents.”
Ross went on to market his painting technique and establish a hugely successful company (Bob Ross Inc.) selling instructional books, videos, a line of art supplies including Bob Ross colours and offering painting workshops with teachers trained in his method, all of which continued to be profitable in the 21st century. Ross was unable to ever change his famed hairstyle due to iconic logo used across all products and TV shows.
The original TV show ran from January 11, 1983 to May 17, 1994, but re-runs still continue to broadcast across the world with the BBC re-running episodes during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, while most viewers were in lockdown at home.
Carried by nearly 95% of all public television stations throughout the United States, accessing more than 93.5 million households, the show has been broadcast in Japan, Mexico, The Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Turkey, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, Costa Rica, Canada and many others. For the first time ever, the series is being made available in digital file format, to inspire a new generation of viewers via YouTube.
The Bob Ross Art Workshop and Gallery in New Smyrna Beach, Florida continues to thrive after opening almost 30 years ago and the Bob Ross product range which includes Bob Ross branded brushes, Bob Ross painting kits, Bob Ross paints, DVD’s, Magazines and ‘How-to’ recreate a Bob Ross Painting all sold online at bobross.com plus 1000’s of stockists around the world.
In 2019 a full exhibition of his work ‘Happy Little Accidents’ featured a selection of works painted by Ross during his prolific tenure hosting his show. Admission to the gallery was free and the exhibition looked to explore the deeper questions around nostalgia, high and low art, art history, the cult of celebrity, pop culture, the art market and ultimately what is worthy of being exhibited and preserved in museums.
25 years after his death, due to the ‘The Joy Of Painting’ and internet presence, Ross is now a household name. It is the most-watched, most-recognised television art program in history. Ross is a virtual cult figure, with nearly 2,000,000 Facebook followers and 3,000 instructors, globally.
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