Bob Ross is one of the most beloved painters of his generation, and he focused almost exclusively on the outdoors. Depicting the “happy trees” and “friendly mountains” of Alaska and the greater western U.S. for his TV show, The Joy of Painting, he earned a following that has only grown since his death. But surprisingly little is known about his life. Famously private, he granted only a handful of interviews and never really spoke about his deeper motivations. So how should we remember Bob Ross, and what does his art say about the natural world? Data journalist Walter Hickey took on these questions, analyzing all 381 of the paintings Ross did for his show. What he found will have you looking at the artist in a whole new light.
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Peter Frick-Wright (host): If you're between the ages of 15 and 85 years old, this is a voice that needs very little introduction.
(audio from The Joy of Painting): Hello, I'm Bob Ross and I'd like to welcome you to the 20th Joy of Painting series.
Frick-Wright: Bob Ross is a public television icon. His show, The Joy of Painting, ran for 11 years, from 1983 to 1994, and was syndicated on hundreds of public television stations. The setup was very simple. Bob, who has a beard, a big bushy orb of hair, wears jeans and a button down shirt, stands in front of a black background, the canvas set up on an easel. As soon as the cameras are rolling, he starts painting and talking, and over the course of 26 minutes, you watch him paint a lush and beautiful landscape, usually full of mountains, lakes, and trees,
(audio from The Joy of Painting): Let's make some happy little clouds in our world.
Frick-Wright: Or maybe I should say you watch him paint all-mighty mountains, charming lakes and happy trees.
(audio from The Joy of Painting): Maybe back in here in our world, there lives a happy little evergreen tree. Look at that. A nice way to make a happy little evergreen. Let's give him a friend. You know me. I think everybody should have a friend.
Frick-Wright: Bob Ross might be kind of an unexpected subject for the Outside Podcast, but he's one of the most recognized, best known visual artists of his generation, and his primary subject was the natural world. It was pretty much the only thing he painted.
(audio from The Joy of Painting): If you've painted anything before, you'd know that I love to make big trees, so let's do that.
Frick-Wright: I've been a fan since I was a kid. When I was home sick from school, I would watch Bob Ross on PBS and drift in and out of his calming, mellow voice, until the moment in every show when I was gobsmacked at how a few dabs of his one inch brush or some scratches with this painting knife would suddenly turn the green and blue splotches he'd just made into an absolutely perfect waterfall, or mountain range, or forest meadow, clear as day.
(audio from The Joy of Painting): Now it's beginning to make a little sense, see how those dark areas end up being the nice shadows and the white areas will end up being our clouds.
Frick-Wright: Of course, a lot of the time what we're talking about when we talk about Bob Ross is completely separate from his painting. A lot of the time when someone says they're a fan, they're talking entirely about his soothing voice and now listening to him makes their head tingling and their eyes droop.
(audio from The Joy of Painting): And I don't want this to be very distinct. I want this to be very quiet, subdued, far away, gentle, soft. Think about those types of words and stuff when you're painting and t'll help your hand go much more gentle.
Frick-Wright: And so that kind of brings up a question I've always wondered about: how should we remember Bob Ross? Was he a capital A artist, someone who is saying something about the moment where you're living in? Or was he some kind of accidental hypnotist? Or maybe more of a street painter who got lucky when a TV producer found his process mesmerizing and decided to give him a show? Over the last couple of years, a lot of people have been asking this question because Bob Ross is finding new fans. Almost all of his shows are now available on YouTube and Netflix and he's just as captivating as ever. Back in 2015 the streaming service Twitch did an eight day Bob Ross marathon that had 5.6 million people tuning it. Last August, the Wall Street Journal reported that Bob Ross Incorporated, which normally handles stuff like tee shirts and paint supplies and the licensing for merchandise like the Bob Ross waffle maker -- they were petitioning the Smithsonian's American Art Museum to put his paintings on display. If an artist stands the test of time like that, he has to have been saying something.
But Ross’s overt message was just so straightforward and simple. In a word: kumbaya.
(audio from The Joy of Painting): I lived in Alaska for many, many years and you see some of the most beautiful scenery there. God was having a good day when he made Alaska.
Frick-Wright: Which, nice as it is, doesn't explain his lasting appeal. So to figure out if Ross might've had some other deeper artistic message, I reached out to Walt Hickey, a data journalist formerly with the website FiveThirtyEight, who, in 2014, wrote the article “A Statistical Analysis of the Work of Bob Ross.”
(in interview) What's your history with Bob Ross?
Walt Hickey: Oh man, Bob Ross, I have always had a fondness for. I would say that a lot of people spent some early years of their life just watching PBS and seeing what happened…
Frick-Wright: Walt,like me, remembers Bob Ross as a guy who's just sort of always on TV and it was kind of pleasant to just watch him paint. He didn't ask anything of you, he just occupied your attention and showed you something beautiful.
Hickey: And so I came into him just as everybody else did, when my friends were smoking pot in college and watching Bob Ross.
Frick-Wright: When Walt grew up and got a job at FiveThirtyEight, which needed counter-intuitive mass appeal stories to pull in eyeballs, Walt pitched a Bob Ross story.
(in interview) Were you curious about Bob Ross as a person?
Hickey: Yes, I was fascinated by Bob Ross as a person. He's such a big part of it, right? I mean, you enjoy the paintings because you know who and how they were made. And he was always just going to be on brand; he had a signature look, but beyond that, he never really talked about his personal world all that much, at least not in a biographical way, so to speak. I was always interested in him as a person and the history there and all the different components that went into like, how does this happen to somebody? How do they become frankly like a weird PBS icon for an entire generation?
Frick-Wright: But for such a well known figure, there isn't a lot of information out there about Bob Ross. He was famously private about his personal life. But we do know that he was born in Florida, joined the air force when he was 18, and then spent 20 years stationed in Alaska near Fairbanks.
Hickey: You do 20 years somewhere and you kind of grow an affection for the place. And, I imagine that’s kind of why he drew a lot of snowy mountains at a certain point.
Frick-Wright: Ross started painting while he was in the military taking classes at the USO, but he learned the wet-on-wet oil painting technique that would become his signature style from a TV show called The Magic of Oil Painting hosted by Bill Alexander.
(audio from The Magic of Oil Painting): So we have a happy sky there, more like a turquoise sky, a southern sky.I will use a kind of Viridian or what do you call that? I forget those names always of that paint. It's a turquoise color what you see here. You see how I put it on?
Frick-Wright: In his spare time, Ross painted landscapes and started putting them up for sale, and when he realized he was making more money from the landscapes than he was from the military, he retired, went back to Florida and took more classes from Bill Alexander.
(audio from The Magic of Oil Painting): Phthalo green, now it gets in my mind. You know when you get older you forget.
Frick-Wright: Eventually Ross started teaching the wet-on-wet oil painting method and it was a student in one of those workshops, a woman named Annette Kowalski, who suggested that he paints on camera as a TV show. She could help them produce it. And over the course of 11 years, he did 381 paintings, or rather he did three times that many because for each episode he painted the same painting three times. One he did before the show, so we could look at it just off camera as he was filming. And then there was the one that you watched him paint. And then after the episode was done, he would paint a third one in much greater detail that'd be photographed and included in the instructional art books that he sold.
After each show, he gave the resulting painting to a different public television station to be auctioned off to raise money, which is actually kind of remarkable considering that he wasn't paid for the show. He did it for free. He made his money selling Bob Ross Art Supplies and the show just helped sell them. Things went on like this until the spring of 1994 when Ross was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer that starts in the immune system and grows in your lymph nodes. Aside from family and close friends, he didn't tell anyone that he'd been diagnosed. He never mentioned it on TV, and there aren’t a lot of other sources of information about Ross's life. He hardly ever did interviews.
So nearly 20 years later when Walt Hickey came along looking for information about Ross's life, the last stone to turn over was his art. Walt wanted to know if you could learn anything about Ross by breaking down his paintings into data points and then doing a statistical analysis of the results. And it turns out you could. More about what exactly you can learn after this break.
Frick-Wright: Before the break we were talking about Walter Hickey’s analysis of Bob Ross’s paintings. What could Walt learn by analyzing his body of work?
Hickey: So we wanted to figure out -- we know that so much of his effort is at designing trees and consistently producing trees, clouds, mountains, lakes. You know the beats, right? You know that once per season he's going to paint a beach. It's going to be an experience. It's nice. You have a nice little sunset in the background. You kind of know what you're looking for. And so first off, you just want to inspect the data, see where you can find it, see where you can obtain it, see where you can locate all the paintings for one, and then you go through one by one. There's no trick to that. A lot of times it's just you have to go through a checklist and feel like, does this painting have a Lake in it? Yeah, that's a lake. Is there a stream leading into the Lake? Yep.
Frick-Wright: I was going to ask what was the process? How did you find every single Bob Ross painting? What was the process of hunting that down?
Hickey: I think I found it off a forum. I think I found like -- I think it was like calendars, I don't know. This was many years ago, you got to understand, but I think, this was some bowels of the internet work. I think I just found on an internet forum, people who had posted like paintings that they had collected and whatnot. and basically just kind of reconcile it. You find the links, you find the order, and we tagged them up with 3,200ish tags.
Frick-Wright: Walt says that when you break down the numbers, there's a couple of quantifiable ideas that form the backbone of Ross's work. For example, at 91% of Ross’s paintings feature at least one tree; 85% feature at least two.
Hickey: And you can on going through the set in such a way; like for instance, 39% of paintings contain an all-mighty mountain. And then given that he painted the mountain, two thirds of the time there's snow on that mountain. Doesn't like hills. Bob Ross is not really a hill guy’ only about 4% of Bob Ross’s paintings in fact feature hills.
So generally you're looking at kind of a consistent way, but he's got a style. I mean it's not just the trees. In like about three fifths of the paintings that have a mountain on it, he had the decency to give that mountain a friend. And overall he was able to really kind of define a signature style. I think that he had an eye for what he wanted to paint. And that was majesty. It was an undisturbed, natural beauty, and he had a real appreciation for that. And it was funny, when I was actually doing some more reporting on it, it's like he doesn't paint people.
Frick-Wright: And here's where things get interesting because in 381 paintings, Bob Ross painted exactly one person: it's a silhouette of a man sitting next to a campfire and leaning against a tree. But it's not just that Ross didn't paint people. He rarely painted the things that come along with people. For a story, Walt interviewed Annette Kowalski, who originally put Bob on TV, and she pointed out that if you look at the cabins Bob painted, there's always one thing missing.
Hickey: You will not find chimneys in paintings by Bob Ross. We were able to find one, but the idea is that chimneys were to her an articulation of man's presence and Bob didn't want to do that. Like if you saw a cabin or a bridge or a fence, it was there being reclaimed by nature. They are standing briefly in defiance, but they're clearly losing the fight against the reclamation of the natural world. And I think that that's an interesting thing to say.
Frick-Wright: When Bob Ross paints a cabin, it's rickety. A bridge, it's dilapidated. His version of an ideal landscape is one where the people have gone and their last remnants are starting to fade away, disappear back into the forest. Because it's all pastoral, you might think he's painting a vision of the world from long ago, but I like to think that what Bob Ross was really doing was depicting a vision of the future. Like look at how beautiful this place is if you just take us out of it. And when you include the broken down bridges and cabins, it's a more precise placement in time. The landscape isn't separate from us or prior to us. It's specifically still there flourishing after we've gone.
Unfortunately, this is just a personal theory, but it would explain why the trees are so happy.
(audio from The Joy of Painting): And when you're painting, make up little stories. Think about the scene that you're painting, become part of it. Make friends with a tree. You can just drop all of this stuff.
Frick-Wright: My interpretation is kind of a stretch, but there haven't been any real art critics analyzing Ross's work until just a few days ago when the DePaul Museum of Art in Chicago included his paintings in an exhibition called New Age New Age: Strategies For Survival. A representative of the museum told a trade publication for art collectors that quote “Ross represents a shift in postwar art away from suffering and trauma, away from irony and academicism, toward optimism, fantasy, community healing, and teaching.”
(audio from The Joy of Painting): This waterline is your separator. It's a light between two darks, and that separates it and it makes it stand out to you.
Frick-Wright: But even this, I'd argue, mischaracterizes the true spirit of Ross as an artist because if you're trying to take a measure of Ross's work, you can't just look at the paintings. More important than what he put on the canvas was the time we spent with him as he painted. That voice; his easygoing, gentle demeanor. The chance to watch a skilled craftsman at work.
(audio from The Joy of Painting): If you are painting mountains, as you know, you always want the top of the mountain to be more distinct than the bottom of the mountain because at the bottom, we have mist and now we have wonderful pollution, and we have all these things that break up and diffuse the light and it creates this softness at the base of the mountain.
Frick-Wright: We're captivated by the process, not the product, and it's our relationship to that process that keeps Bob Ross alive in our collective memory. It's not visual art that Ross is doing, it's performance art.
Hickey: He's like an icon in a lot of different ways. He's got a visual look. He's got a style that is really unique to him in a way that I think is an enormous credit to him foreseeing that people like to zone in on something for 20 minutes. People like to focus; concentration is oftentimes a better means of distraction and relaxation than just like silence.
Frick-Wright: Bob Ross was a skilled painter, but it's not his painting that we should be taking seriously. It's the fact that he was able to captivate so many people for so long with nothing more than his brush canvas and presence.
(audio from The Joy of Painting): Shake off the excess and just beat the devil out of it. This is where you take out all your frustrations and hostilities and just have a good time.
Frick-Wright: There's a saying that geniuses are people who bring something new into the world before the world realizes that they want it, and if YouTube is any indication the world wants a lot more stuff in the style of Bob Ross.
(audio from Youtube videos)
Frick-Wright: Art is difficult to define and measure, but Ross was far enough ahead of his time that I think his show might qualify as a work of genius.
Hickey: A lot of times people, when they're stressed out, think that they want to be distracted, but based on some research that I kind of came across, it actually turns out it's more effective to be focused on something else. And I think that that might be one reason that he's so disarming and is so at ease. It's not that he's like trying to like, soothe with you, Snake from Jungle Book style. He's trying to do something cool. He has very specific goal about it. He's going to take you along for the ride. He's a very competent man and he's going to make a cool damn painting by the end of it. It looks like nothing now, but you're going to like it. And I think that that opportunity to focus in on creation is a very, very fun fact. And I think that that aesthetic really permeates his life. And I think that we were very lucky to have him.
Frick-Wright: Ross died relatively young on July 4th, 1995, at the age of 52. He was buried to be the plaque that is either entirely too brief for someone of his reach and influence, or maybe it's a deeply profound statement about who he was as a painter, performer, and a public figure. It reads simply: Bob Ross, Television Artist. For what it's worth the “A” in artist is capitalized.
Frick-Wright: This episode was written and produced by me, Peter Frick-Wright. Editing and music by Robbie Carver. Special thanks to Monica Lopez for recording.
It was brought to you by Coasta sunglasses, made for people who need water to breathe. More at coastasunglasses.com.
The Outside Podcast is a production of Outside Magazine and PRX. We’ll be back next week.