Happy Little Trees: Bob Ross and His Rise to Fame

When you hear the name Bob Ross, do you think of his “happy little trees,” or his afro? He is a legendary landscape artist who worked his way into our hearts with his kind and peaceful demeanor. He was known for being kind, calm, and relaxed while painting beautiful landscapes on our TV screens. Where would the art world be without him?

Bob Ross with his wife and son / The Bob Ross Studio / Bob Ross painting / Bob Ross
Source: Pinterest

The star embraced his humble beginnings and never let fame get to his head. With his legendary hairstyle and refusal to paint people in any part of his work, he left his mark as a unique and passionate artist who loved nature. Many compared him to Andy Warhol, but no, he was one of a kind. This is the story of Bob Ross and his rise to success.

A Creative Spirit from an Early Age

Bob Ross was born in Daytona Beach, Florida, on October 29th, 1942. He was a curious child who was close with his parents, Jack and Ollie Ross. His father, Jack, was a carpenter and builder, which engrained a creative spirit in him from a young age. Of course, he learned from his mother, too; she inspired his love and appreciation for wildlife.

Bob Ross as a young man.
Source: Pinterest

Ross frequented his father’s workshop more than school. Though the painter and public television star was pretty private about his early life, he did drop out of high school in the ninth grade. He spent much of his teen years working as his father’s assistant in the workshop.

A Piece of His Finger

We know now more than ever that we need to be careful when working with tools. It seems that Bob Ross had to learn this lesson the hard way. The painter lost the tip of his index finger in an accident in the shop, which made him very self-conscious.

Bob Ross painting while on set in front of a film camera.
Source: NPR

In his later years on camera, he would position his paint palette to cover his injury. Luckily his non-dominant hand wasn’t affected in the accident, so it did not impact his ability to hold the palette, nor did it impact his ability to paint his legendary works.

Serving His Country

In 1961, Ross joined the United States Air Force when he was only 18 years old. He enjoyed his role working as a medical records technician – something he did for 20 years. The Air Force would quickly transfer him to their base in Fairbanks, Alaska, which introduced him to his passion for nature.

A military portrait of Bob Ross.
Source: Twitter

Most of his time in the Air Force was spent at the Eielson Air Force Base not far from Fairbanks. He continually earned himself promotions, though he was not a huge fan of the disciplinary part of the job. He later recalled his experience and why he was not a fan of moving forward; “[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.”

The Self-Taught Professional

Ross took up painting as a way to relieve the stresses of his job. He also wanted to make a little extra money, which of course, is relatable. His life in Alaska inspired much of the work he would later be known for. The area around Fairbanks is known for mountain lakes and pristine forests; these were some of his biggest inspirations.

Bob Ross is posing with his paintbrush and palette.
Source: Pinterest

He taught himself how to paint rather slowly. He knew he wanted to work quickly and efficiently, so he enrolled in a painting class with a teacher who would give him the tools to create his eventual trademark style. He learned everything he could from William Alexander, who taught painting for a living.

His First Art Teacher

His first teacher was William Alexander, a former German prisoner of war. He moved to America shortly after his release and began painting to survive. He was a bit older, and claimed to have created the painting style that Bob Ross was known for. This style was known as “wet on wet,” though he did not really invent it. Caravaggio and Monet used the method before.

Bill Alexander is standing by his artwork as he explains how to do it.
Source: Reddit

The painting technique used rapidly painted layers of oil paint. The layers would be painted over each other without waiting for other elements of the painting to dry. Bob Ross was a busy man; the former Sergeant needed something that would mix well with his schedule. This was perfect for him.

Traveling to Meet His Idol

Ross came across Alexander on television (he had a painting show on public television from 1974 to 1982). Ross was so moved by what he learned that he decided to travel to Florida to meet and learn from the talented artist. It did not take long for Ross to find his calling and make plans for his next big move.

An old photograph of Bob Ross posing with William Alexander.
Source: Tumblr

Shortly after visiting Alexander in 1981, Ross decided to retire from the Air Force and began painting full time. He also began teaching the craft, though he had only recently learned himself. When you find your passion, you need to run with it!

Budding New Friendships

The painting profession was not the most beneficial in making sure he could pay his bills. His early years as a painter did not pay well. Apparently, being the star of a public television artist’s class did not really pay him that well! He arranged some private lessons here and there, but that still was not enough to get by.

Alexander is passing the paintbrushes over to Ross.
Source: NPR

When Alexander retired, some students still wanted to take his classes, so he referred them to this new artist, Bob Ross. One of Ross’s students was Annette Kowalski, whose husband signed her up for painting classes after their eldest son passed away. Little did she know that her life would forever be changed after taking a class with Ross.

Big Hair, Annette Cares

Annette Kowalski became Ross’s business manager, and she instantly shared her thoughts on how he could cut back on costs. She believed his famous hairdo was the result of his constant financial struggles. “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,” Kowalski shared in an interview.

Bob Ross and Annette Kowalski pose for a picture.
Source: Twitter

Ross himself was not a huge fan of the trademark perm that lived on his head. Maybe he disliked it because it reminded him of his financial woes, or maybe he just did not like the style itself. His financial problems kept him from being able to get frequent haircuts, and by the time he had the means, his hair was already part of his public image.

The Meeting That Changed Everything

As previously mentioned, Annette Kowalski traveled to take one of William Alexander’s classes. She was initially disappointed when she could not take his class, but her spirits were raised when she learned that he enlisted up-and-comer Bob Ross to take his place on the show. Though she was first thrown off, she was later pleasantly surprised.

Bob Ross and Annette Kowalski on set.
Source: Youtube

Kowalski was instantly in awe when Ross began teaching the course. He began painting and talking, and she suddenly felt soothed. She was dealing with the recent trauma of losing a child to a car accident, and she felt that his voice and general demeanor were therapeutic. After class, she introduced herself and suggested a partnership and a promotional deal. As we know now, he accepted!

A Successful Partnership

Annette and Walt Kowalski are responsible for helping Ross reach his highly esteemed image. Walt, who was a former C.I.A. agent, said he instantly had a good feeling about Ross. He was skilled and talented, and he believed he was just an all-around great guy to have in your life.

Behind the scenes filming on the set of ‘The Joy of Painting’.
Source: NPR

Walt signed his wife up for these art classes in Clearwater, Florida, where she would be learning how to paint over five days. His wife adored the new teacher – his voice was so soothing that she was mesmerized. She couldn’t even focus on her painting. Ross would later end up moving in with the couple as he left Alaska to pursue this passion.

The Joy of Painting

In January 1983, The Joy of Painting aired for the very first time on PBS. When they started the series, neither producers nor the artist himself anticipated doing as much as he did. Over time, he would go on to produce 403 episodes, resulting in thousands of paintings.

Bob Ross on set holding up a clapper.
Source: Reddit

The show had a way of grabbing the attention of the audience. The program was complete with a smooth jazz theme song. His calm, welcoming voice comforted viewers tuning in from across the nation. Ross would go on to be an encouraging icon to all who watched.

A Living Inspirational Quote Poster

He kicked off his series by introducing himself and letting his viewers know that if they wanted to paint something magical, they had the tools to do something great. He was quoted as encouraging his viewers: “you, too, can paint almighty pictures!”

Ross is standing by his easel painting on set while filming.
Source: NPR

These kind words were planned. Annette Kowalski shared something interesting – Ross used to lie awake at night in his bed, coming up with one-liners for his show! He was seen as a perfectionist and wanted to be sure that every little detail was set in place. He ran both the show and his business in a demanding way.

A Quiet Man

During his Air Force days, he vowed to never raise his voice again after he constantly did so back on the base. He kept his promise as he never yelled during his time managing the show. He was, however, very firm about the details and how he wanted things to be done. It was his show, in every sense possible.

Bob Ross on set talking to a bird as he holds it in his hand.
Source: NPR

Ross knew what he wanted and did not settle for less. He held firm on every detail – how to light the scene to best display the paintings, how to market his paints, and so on. He went as far as to gently sand his paint palette to avoid glares from studio lighting!

Educating Others Through Action

Everything started with his in-person classes. Sure, his chilled-out attitude helped him make a name for himself; however, everything tied back to his teaching skills. Fundamentally, he was a teacher. The goal and purpose of the show were to teach his painting skills and encourage those who were interested in painting to give it a try.

A close-up shot of ross painting a small fire with his paintbrush.
Source: Youtube

He understood that his students and viewers might not all have the financial means to support their creativity. As a result, he always used the same pigments and brushes to help those on a budget. He wanted everyone who was interested to be able to get involved, no matter their financial situation.

Easily Accessible Painting

As opposed to using fancy art supplies, Ross took a humbler route. He used house painting brushes as well as an ordinary paint scraper. He did not want to use specialized tools, as he wanted to give those at home the ability to follow along with him.

Ross is working on a painting on set.
Source: NPR

Ross took his viewers on a painting journey in real-time. He wanted the show to be based around his viewers being able to follow along with him, following him step by step. The show was built around making everyone a painting expert, so he did not believe the show needed major editing.

The Tale of Three Paintings

Over the course of his 11-year television career, he painted 381 pieces on the show. He painted in 381 episodes, and the remaining 22 episodes featured a guest – most frequently, he would have his son Steve make a guest appearance. For each episode, Ross would paint three identical paintings.

Three replicas of a mountain and waterfall painting made by Bob Ross.
Source: New York Times

The first painting was always made prior to the show. It was meant to be used as a point of reference. The second painting would be made during the episode, over a span of 26 minutes. He painted the third afterward for purposes of instructional books.

Third Time’s a Charm!

This artist believed in being as accurate as possible. His first of the three paintings were created as a point of reference. He wanted to have the painting available to show spectators what they were working toward. The second painting was created to show each and every step required to create the masterpiece.

Ross on set working on a painting.
Source: NPR

His third painting was always meant to be a “flawless” version for the books. Literally, he wanted to make an additional painting for instructional books, even though he probably could have just used the first painting… Maybe it’s best not to question the artist’s process!

Where Are the Paintings?

Though the show only had 381 Bob Ross original paintings, his work exceeds this number. Bob Ross is estimated to have painted approximately 1,143 paintings – three of the same per episode. So what happened to all of these precious works of art?

Unpacking a box filled with Bob Ross paintings.
Source: Pinterest

The New York Times conducted an investigation back in 2019 to locate the paintings and determine what was being done with the work. Their findings brought them to Bob Ross Inc.’s Virginia headquarters, which was being directed by his longtime business partner, Annette Kowalski, and her daughter Joan.

Bob Ross Inc.

Annette Kowalski and her daughter Joan run the company, which is dedicated to all things related to the late Bob Ross. The company’s headquarters currently houses the remaining paintings, but they have no intention of selling them. You may be shocked to hear about the outcome of these paintings…

Sarah Stroll, the executive assistant at Bob Ross Inc, sorts through a stack of Ross paintings.
Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Currently, most of his paintings are sitting packed up in boxes in a climate-controlled environment. The Kowalski clan admitted that it would not be in true Bob Ross fashion to sell the paintings. They have no intention of selling the paintings – they say it “wasn’t really Bob’s thing.”

Rejecting Oprah

So many people would kill for the opportunity to be interviewed by the amazing Oprah. You might think that everyone invited to meet with the esteemed talk show host would jump at the opportunity, but it seems that Bob Ross was not one of those people! Ross actually turned down an invitation to be interviewed on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Oprah Winfrey is hosting her talk show.
Source: Pinterest

Ross was invited to be interviewed on Oprah’s show but turned the interview down based on a couple of factors. When her team reached out, he wanted to confirm that he would be painting on the show. To his disappointment, he would not be painting on the show but rather filming an episode about couples who were in business together. He politely declined and made history as one of the few to turn down Oprah!

The Three Percent

He created his show to encourage viewers to paint along with him. Bob Ross Inc. estimated that only around three percent of his viewers tuned in to follow his instructions; of his millions of viewers across the world, only a small percentage actually engaged with the program’s mission.

Sarah Stroll, executive assistant at Bob Ross, Inc., with a figurine of Ross on the table before her.
Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Very few viewers actually painted along with the artist. They watched him because he was soothing. Alice Cheney, a station manager at WIPB, reflected on comments she would receive from viewers. They just wanted to hear his voice. Others would discuss how they could not possibly pick up a brush while watching him – they were too mesmerized.

Critter Corner

Ross’s love of nature expanded far beyond just happy little trees and clouds. He loved animals and would often bring small ones onto the show while filming. He liked to refer to them as “critters” because of their size and gentle nature.

Bob Ross is playing with a squirrel.
Source: Pinterest

His favorite animal to bring on set was the squirrel – he would bring them onto the program as often as possible. Squirrels were his trademark critter. In some cases, he would have a baby deer, an owl, or even a baby raccoon join him in the studio.

Filming HBO Fillers

Bob Ross also had a great sense of humor! He was invited by HBO to spoof himself and acknowledge the criticisms he received about not having the true skill needed to be a successful artist. He was happy with his methods and did not quite mind the comments but wanted to face them head-on.

Bob Ross is painting while on set.
Source: NPR

Ross filmed short pieces with HBO that would play between movies. He would interrupt a formal art class by coming to paint the house the class was hosted in. He would wait for the students to leave and would give the piece a try himself, but he would only use his own tools. He looked at the camera and chuckled, knowing he was happy to poke fun at himself.

William Alexander Was Not a Fan of His Successor’s Accomplishments

Despite selecting his successor himself, Alexander was not pleased with all of the success Ross had after him. Even though Ross was his protégé, Alexander was as salty as it gets when it comes to the empire that Ross built. Alexander was so frustrated that he sought out reporters from The New York Times to share his truth.

William Alexander is working on a painting.
Source: Twitter

“He betrayed me; 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 – his painting method was used by other artists before Alexander. Also, Ross was not trying to take credit for someone else’s method, either!

Exponentially Growing

The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross started out on only 50 local television stations. As the program grew, they would soon expand to 75 stations. Quickly, the show would end up reaching 300 stations. You could find Bob Ross on your TV, wherever you lived.

The empty film set of ‘The Joy of Painting’, just the cameras and the easel.
Source: New York Times

Of the 375 PBS stations across the nation, his show aired on 370. In today’s day and age, despite no longer being around, Ross has his own YouTube channel. Currently, the Bob Ross channel has 4.71 million subscribers. Every episode can now be found on that channel.

A Moment of Silence

Phil Donahue, the host of The Phil Donahue Show, talked about how a moment of silence was unheard of in television, especially in live programs. Once the red light went on to signify that recording had begun, he expected everything to get crazy and loud. Then came Bob Ross, shattering his ideas of what television would look like.

Bob Ross on The Phil Donahue Show.
Source: NBC

Donahue discussed how live-action television was quite intense. Ross’s manner of painting “happy little trees and happy little clouds” was unlike anything the television personality had seen before. Donahue recalled feeling refreshed after watching Ross on-screen, paving the way for a new era in television.

Speed Painting

Famous viewers of the painter recalled the speed by which Ross moved through the program. Viewers watched in awe as he painted a whole piece from start to finish in just 30 minutes. How did he create so much so quickly – and so efficiently?

Bob Ross is smiling in a promotional photo in front of one of his paintings.
Source: Facebook

Perhaps it was his “wet on wet” method; perhaps he was just really good at the job. His voice was slow and steady, but his painting movements were rapid. His dedication to painting quickly often had him referred to as a bulldog – he got into his painting and really threw himself into it. “He worked the canvas; he expected a lot from his work. He really did it.”

He Loved His Corvette

Bob Ross loved his little red corvette. In his younger days, the painter used to drag race, but he probably realized it was not the safest method of getting around. Luckily, he found his calling in painting, but we are sure he would zip around in his beloved car with the top down and wind flowing through his afro.

Bob Ross is seen eating a slice of pizza.
Source: Tumblr

There is not much information about his car, but his kids still have his license plates on hand. He led a few episodes where he painted a red corvette. We think it is safe to assume he really loved that car!

Peapod the Squirrel

Peapod, the squirrel, was a frequent guest on the show. Peapod was Ross’s pet squirrel who lived at home with him for two years. Peapod would make appearances along with other wildlife on the show, but Peapod had an advantage up his sleeve – he could fit in his dad’s pocket!

Ross posing with two squirrels on his shoulder.
Source: Reddit

Ross was infatuated with his little friend. He would often feed Peapod on screen, with his little bottle held between his hands. They were seen as such a dynamic duo that children’s books were created to tell the story of their time together. One book even goes through all of his painting steps in the pursuit of making a new home for Peapod.

Passion for Wildlife

The studio was not exactly pleased with his constant featuring of critters. However, they allowed it because it made him happy and did not do much damage. He was passionate about rehabilitating injured or orphaned animals and would build elaborate cages for them.

Ross is holding up a little raccoon.
Source: Pinterest

Diana Shaffer was a wildlife rehabilitator who lived nearby. She helped him with many of the critters that were featured on the show, and he helped her as well. He would frequently build huge wire cages for the animals she kept on her property, which helped her a lot.

The Heart Attack

While living and filming in Muncie, Indiana, Ross suffered from a heart attack. He was bedridden for a while in an effort to get back in shape. Annette Kowalski stayed in Muncie with Ross while he was sick, and she shared a story that showed his true colors.

Bob Ross is fishing from his boat, which is placed in the middle of the street.
Source: Facebook

Kowalski talked about how his main concern when he was sick was making sure the fish at his local pond were being fed! He was more concerned with making sure his fish friends were getting the attention he believed they needed. This guy was a good egg!

Live from the Auction

His positivity radiated like no one else on television. He wanted to give back to the system that had helped change his life. His impact had a greater reach than he could ever imagine, which was proven to him through an auction he presented at. An elderly woman had purchased the painting he created live at the auction. What happened next will warm your heart.

Bob Ross is talking about his painting on set.
Source: NPR

The woman who bought it asked him to wait because she was going to come in and meet the artist himself. She arrived at 11:30 at night after driving for an hour, and showed up with her walker. She met him and was in tears, stating that she had very few good days and that watching him on screen was the best part of that day. Bob thanked her and wrapped her in a hug.

Training the Next “Bob Ross”

As the show grew, the artist was still dependent on his painting classes as a source of income. He realized that it was impossible to sustain both. He decided the best route to take would be to train instructors in his method – he trained a generation of “Bob Ross Instructors.”

Women are taking part in an outdoor Bob Ross art class.
Source: The New York Times

In 1987, he created the first team of “Bob Ross instructors,” who would go around and teach in his place. The rise of these instructors resulted in the now-booming commercial art world. His face graced the boxes of paints that would be sold in art shops that are specifically used by instructors teaching his methods.

Seminars and Demonstrations

Everyone wanted a piece of Bob Ross! As his business grew and he trained other artists to teach his methods, he started to make more public appearances. He would run seminars and appear on talk shows to demonstrate the method to his madness.

Students are taking part in a Bob Ross painting seminar given by an instructor.
Source: Bob Ross Inc.

During his appearance on The Joan Rivers Show, he talked with the host about how it really only takes 30 minutes to “make some magic,” as he put it. And you might think that he would have shown up in limousines and had paparazzi chasing him down, but you would be wrong. He and Joan Kowalski could be found carrying big easels up and down the busy city streets.

Grand Ole Opry

Ross was a huge fan of country music, so he was ecstatic when he was invited to join a performance of The Grand Ole Opry. His friend Hank Snow invited him on stage, and Ross was over the moon! When the band introduced him, the crowd went nuts with excitement.

Hank Snow during Toronto taping session.
Photo by Ted Dinsmore/Toronto Star/Getty Images

At first, he was nervous, but later, country stars would approach him to let him know how much they loved him. Annette Kowalski even set up an art class for his favorite country artists to learn from him about his craft!

Global Reach

By the early 1990s, more than 300 episodes had aired of The Joy of Painting. Though it started in the United States, the show gained global reach. At first, the show expanded to Canada, but soon the show spanned the globe.

A woman standing by a road sign that has a picture of Bob Ross with the warning that there are ‘Happy Little Trees Ahead’.
Source: Twitter

The Joy of Painting had viewers in every corner of the earth. It reached Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Turkey, Iran, South Korea, and Japan. Even when he could have been dubbed in the language of the country that was viewing his show, they felt that his voice was the most important part.

Pop Culture Icon

After his second book was published, Ross hit the talk show circuits once more. He made appearances on Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee, teaching the two to paint. He was recognized across the industry as an absolute icon. He did not quite understand his reach until he appeared on QVC, when he had a very special celebrity reach out to him.

Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee are hosting their show.
Source: ABC

When he finished filming the spot, he received a phone call. Who was it, you ask? On the other end of the line was another icon – Marlon Brando! His jaw dropped to learn that the people he looked up to for years now admired him.

Wrapping It Up

Though his career was at an all-time high, his personal life was far from it. He lost his wife Jane to cancer in 1992. His own health was going downhill as well, and little did the world know that his days on earth were numbered.

Bob Ross is posing for a photo in the backyard with his wife and son.
Source: Twitter

Bob Ross was dealing with his second bout of lymphoma – his initial diagnosis happened years before the show was created, and he had been in remission for years. He kept this a secret and was always tired. He began to plan to ensure that his legacy would continue.

How Did Bob Ross Die?

His colleagues had a couple of years to gather their thoughts and feelings on what was to come. Ross was worried that with his passing, the landscape method would die with him. As a result, the Bob Ross Studio was opened in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. This would invite the next generation of artists dedicating themselves to his craft.

An art class being taught at the Bob Ross Studio.
Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images

Unfortunately, Bob Ross lost his battle with lymphoma on July 4th, 1995. He passed away and left a legacy of kindness and commitment behind. We hope that wherever he is now, he knows the positive impact he had on the world.

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