Bob Ross: The Man Behind The Happy Little Trees

He gave up a career in the Air Force to teach millions of people the joy of painting. An accident early in life cost him the tip of his finger. And his hair was actually straight. There's a lot to be learned about legendary painter Bob Ross.

Bob Ross Biography Smiling

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In the early 1980s, Bob Ross quietly appeared on public television stations across the United States to give viewers an experience that was part art lesson, part entertainment, and part pro bono therapy session.

In more than 400 26-minute episodes, Ross taught his painting technique to millions of viewers, most of whom weren’t especially interested in learning to paint for themselves, but who were mesmerized by Ross’s languid, hypnotic smoothness and trademark permed afro.

In something close to real time, he effortlessly daubed whole landscapes into existence on the canvas, talking the whole time about soothing topics and encouraging his novice viewers to discover their own inner artists. Even those in his audience who never picked up a brush still found the show oddly calming, and many reacted with real grief when their icon unexpectedly died of cancer in 1994.

Despite his consistently high ratings and devoted fan base, however, Bob Ross lived a very private life and rarely spoke about himself, and so there remains a lot that isn’t known about the man who coined the term “happy little trees.”

From Daytona To Fairbanks

Bob Ross Young Hair

WBUR

Bob Ross was born in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1942. His father was a carpenter, and as a child, Ross was always more at home in the workshop than in school. Ross never shared the details of his early years, but he did drop out of school in the ninth grade and seems to have worked as his father’s assistant.

An accident in the shop cost him the tip of his left index finger around this time. He seems to have been self-conscious about the injury; in later years he would position his palette in such a way as to cover the finger.

In 1961, at the age of 18, Ross joined the Air Force and was assigned to an office job as a medical records technician. It was a career he would stick with for 20 years.

Much of Ross’ time in the Air Force was spent at the Air Force clinic at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska. He performed well enough to earn regular promotions, but this led to a problem. According to his own later account:

“[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.”

Feeling that his job ran against his natural temperament, he swore that if he ever left the military he’d never shout again. To lift some of the strain he was under, and to make a little extra money, Ross took up painting in his spare time.

Mountains And Trees, Mostly Happy

Bob Ross Alaska Nature

Public Domain

He could hardly have chosen a better place to start painting landscapes. The area around Fairbanks features mountain lakes and pristine forests full of snow-dappled trees, all of them practically begging to be rendered in titanium white. These landscapes inspired Ross throughout his career, even after he moved back to his native Florida.

While he was slowly teaching himself to paint — and to do it quickly, so that he could finish a whole painting in a single 30-minute break — he found a teacher who would teach him what became his trademark style.

William Alexander was a former German POW who moved to America after his release at the end of World War II and took up painting for a living. Late in life, Alexander claimed to have invented the style he taught Ross, popularly known as “wet-on-wet,” but it was actually a refinement of a style used by Caravaggio and Monet. His technique involved rapidly painting layers of oil over each other without waiting for the picture elements to dry. To a busy man like Master Sergeant Bob Ross, this method was perfect, and the landscapes that Alexander painted perfectly matched his preferred subject matter.

Ross first came across Alexander on public television, where he hosted a painting show from 1974 to 1982, and he eventually traveled to meet and learn from the man himself in 1981. After a short time, Ross decided he’d found his calling and retired from the Air Force to paint and teach full time.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
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