Just off U.S. Route 50 in Herndon, Virginia, stands a non-descript warehouse that houses more than a thousand paintings created by one of America’s most recognized and beloved painters: Bob Ross.
The paintings are not on exhibit, but rather neatly stacked and stored in cataloged cardboard boxes; happy little tree upon happy little tree. The warehouse belongs to Bob Ross Inc., the company that keeps Ross in the forefront of pop culture, through the sale of his DIY books, art supplies, and memorabilia.
The Joy of Painting
Ross’s how-to-painting show, “The Joy of Painting,” was first broadcast on PBS in 1983 and ended in 1994. In many ways, his comforting voice and mesmerizing delivery surpassed the actual act of painting, making the show irresistibly popular. It was a binge-worthy show before binge-watching was a thing.
Over the course of 403 episodes, Ross would paint three versions of the same painting. The first was painted as a reference before the show. The second was painted during the taping of the show. And the last, was made afterward, for his how-to books.
How Many Paintings Did Ross Paint for the Show?
No one knows exactly how many Bob Ross paintings exist today, but according to analysis conducted by the website FiveThirtyEight, Ross painted in 381 of the 403 shows. And if he painted three paintings for each show, he would have painted 1,143 pieces during his magical run on public television. Considering Ross also painted as an instructor, for personal enjoyment, and for public events, there’s many more paintings in circulation than just those painted for “The Joy of Painting.”
A Drill Sergeant’s Love of Painting
Though Bob Ross Inc. operates out of Virginia—owned and operated by his longtime business partner Annette Kowalski—Ross himself was from Florida. Born Robert Norman Ross and raised in Orlando, his first career move was enlisting in the Air Force at the age of 18. He was stationed at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska, which is where he saw snow and gazed upon majestic mountains for the first time.
Ross often commented on “The Joy of Painting,” that his landscape choices―and the speed in which he painted them―were strongly influenced by his time in Alaska, especially his time as a drill sergeant. And that’s not a typo. Yes, the mellow man with the big hair and silky smooth voice was at one time a drill sergeant!
Ross would go home at lunch, paint a few landscapes while eating, and then go back to work where he would sell his paintings. He soon discovered he could make more money selling his artwork than he could in the Air Force. After a 20-year military career, Ross called it quits and passionately pursued a new career and lifestyle.
The Bob Ross Formula
If you’ve watched more than one episode of “The Joy of Painting,” you would be hard-pressed to find one painting that stands out from the next. If describing one, you could be describing dozens more just like it; a little bush, a stand of happy trees, fluffy little clouds. It’s the body of work that is so impressive, a testament to consistency, tenacity, and replicability.
Not in the Smithsonian
Ross, who died in 1995 of lymphoma, left an indelible mark on art and culture. So much so, that the Smithsonian National Museum of American History recently set out to acquire some of his work. The museum worked closely with Bob Ross Inc. to select four paintings for the Smithsonian.
To capture the essence of Ross’s work, the museum chose the book version of Blue Ridge Falls (season 30, episode 13) and all three versions of On a Clear Day (season 14, episode 8). The latter, illustrates Ross’s repeatable painting process, while highlighting the subtle differences in each. The museum also acquired fan letters, an ammunition box that stored his brushes, production notebooks, and other memorabilia.
The Smithsonian hopes to establish a Bob Ross exhibit in the future, although a date has not yet been chosen.
In 1994, as a guest on the Phil Donahue Show, Ross was prodded by Donahue to publicly state that his “…work will never hang in a museum.”
“Well, maybe it will,” Ross replied. “But probably not the Smithsonian.”
Fun Fact: Bob Ross first chose to perm his hair because it was cheaper than getting frequent haircuts. He gradually grew to despise the look, but didn’t feel he could change it because it had become synonymous with his name and was even emblazoned on his company logo!