Twenty-five years after his death in 1995 due to complications from lymphoma, it’s tempting to ascribe Bob Ross’s current popularity to the stresses related to Covid-19. His relaxed demeaner, soothing voice, and sincere assertion that mistakes are just “happy accidents” has helped soothe many an anxious soul.
But Ross’s popularity pre-dates the pandemic. His PBS show The Joy of Painting (1983-1994) has been seen in reruns for years; his books and branded art supplies have remained readily available; and in early 2019, the Smithsonian announced that it had acquired a collection of his paintings and personal items. In fact, Ross gained many new fans in 2015 thanks to Twitch.
Born in 1942, Robert Norman Ross dropped out of high school before enlisting in the United States Air Force, where he eventually rose to the rank of Master Sergeant. It was while he was stationed in Alaska that he first developed an interest in painting. He had taken a class, but it was not until he saw artist Bill Alexander’s PBS series The Magic of Oil Painting (1974-1982) that Ross was introduced to the “wet-on-wet” painting technique for which he is known.
Used by oil painters since the Renaissance, the wet-on-wet – or alla prima – technique entails completing a painting before any of the paint has had a chance to dry, giving the artist the ability to quickly correct errors or to make changes to the composition. The technique suited Ross perfectly.
In 1981 Ross ended his 20-year military career, vowing to never raise his voice again, as he’d had to do when disciplining those of lower rank. He returned to Florida, where he’d been born, to become a student of Alexander’s technique and to join Alexander’s Magic Art Supplies Company as a salesman and tutor.
One of Ross’ students (and eventual business partner), Annette Kowalski, was so impressed by him that she convinced him to strike out on his own, a decision that led to the filming of The Joy of Painting and the formation of Bob Ross Inc.
Now a multi-million-dollar company, finances were so tight in the beginning that Ross had his hair permed in order to cut down on the cost of frequent trips to the barber. Unfortunately for Ross, by the time he’d tired of the perm, it had become one of his signature features, and had been integrated into the company logo.
Since his death, Ross has become a pop cultural icon. In addition to Bob Ross Inc.’s branded merchandise – paint sets, books, DVDs, T-shirts, etc. – there are Bob Ross Chia Pets, Bob Ross calendars, Bob Ross ornaments and bobbleheads, Bob Ross Monopoly sets, Funko Pop! Bob Ross vinyl figures, and even Bob Ross face masks! Most are too new or too numerous to have any extraordinary value in the secondary markets, but they do make interesting additions to any fan’s collection.
The real values lie in the canvases painted by Ross himself. It is unknown how many canvases Ross painted over his lifetime, but it has been estimated that he produced some twelve to thirteen hundred paintings for the PBS series. Unbelievably, Ross showed little interest in selling the paintings, and most are still owned by his company. When a genuine Bob Ross painting does appear at auction, final values have ranged from $10,000 to $20,000+.
Interested in learning more about Bob Ross? Check out the resources below, and
A Big Bob Ross Exhibit Will Open in September (Washingtonian)
Bob Ross Inc. (BobRoss.com) – Official website includes artist supplies, news, merchandise, class directory, more.
Bob Ross (YouTube) – The official Bob Ross YouTube channel.
New Investigation Answers Pressing Question: Whatever Happened to All of Bob Ross’ Paintings? (Smithsonian Magazine) – Entertaining piece.
Where Are All the Bob Ross Paintings? We Found Them (The New York Times) – WATCH THE VIDEO! Hilariously entertaining! (and informative.)