There are some celebrities and public figures who are pretty much universally loved. Even if you aren't the biggest fans of a particular person's work or tune in to see everything that they do, you just can't bring yourself to dislike that person or decry what they're doing, because the very act of doing so goes against every wholesome human instinct. I'd argue that Bob Ross is one of those people, but what happened to the Joy of Painting host?
What happened to Bob Ross that transformed him from military man to beloved "hippie" painter?
Robert Norman Ross created The Joy of Painting, which aired on PBS in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, and Europe from 1983 until 1994.
He was born to Jack and Ollie Ross in Daytona Beach, Fla. His mother was a waitress and his father was a carpenter. As a young boy, he would care for injured animals — everything from snakes, alligators, armadillos, and even squirrels.
Bob wasn't too keen on completing high school and dropped out in the ninth grade, but he kept busy. He began working as a carpenter with his father and lost part of his left index finger while working on a job with him. After he turned 18, he joined the U.S. Air Force as a medical records technician. His work ethic paid off and he was promoted to the role of Master Sergeant; he was the First Sergeant of the clinic at the Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska.
Since he was Florida-born and raised (Daytona Beach to Orlando), he saw snow for the first time in person after relocating to Alaska. It was on duty there when he was able to develop his quick painting techniques, something he worked on during short breaks.
His stint in the military is actually what helped to condition his trademark soft-spoken voice. He was tired of being, "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."
Bob was in the Air Force for 20 years and it was at an U.S.O. art class in Anchorage where he first picked up his love for the artistic medium. He reportedly got in arguments with painting instructors for being "too abstract" with their instruction, stating, "They'd tell you what makes a tree, but they wouldn't tell you how to paint a tree."
In addition to working in the military, Ross also took on a position as a part-time bartender — and that's when he first learned of The Magic of Oil Painting, a show that was hosted by Bill Alexander, a German painter who used the alla prima painting style or "first attempt." This "wet on wet" style, when done correctly, would allow an artist to create a painting in about 30 minutes.
Bob worked diligently to perfect the technique, and he did. He had an affinity for painting tremendous Alaskan landscapes, and he'd do so on novelty gold-mining pans. His works were a smash success, and the money he made from his paintings began to eclipse his military salary.
In 1981, he retired from the Air Force as a Master Sergeant and returned to Florida, where he'd seek out Bill Alexander and further develop his skills.
Bob also joined Alexander Magic Art Supplies Company, through which he sold paint supplies door to door, along with tutoring others on how to paint. Annette Kowalski, who attended one of Bob's classes, thought that he would be able to make it on his own and convinced him to break away from Bill to go out on his own. Annette, Bob, and his wife formed a company of their own. It struggled, however, Bob was able to get on PBS, but how it all came about is still not known.
The Joy of Painting debuted on Jan. 11, 1983, and was shot in Muncie, Ind. It was a hit with audiences, and Bob was able to leverage his TV stardom into a successful paint supplies business and more in-depth class recordings — resulting in a $15 million business, one that would go to the Kowalskis.
What happened to Bob Ross after he retired from 'The Joy of Painting'?
The show would eventually end with its final episode, "Wilderness Day," which aired on May 17, 1994. A little over a year later, Bob died.
Because he was an extremely private person, few people knew of his lymphoma diagnosis outside of his close circle of friends and family members. He died on July 4, 1995. Bob Ross Inc. is extremely protective of the man's intellectual property until this very day.
Many people re-discovered Bob Ross and his techniques after self-isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you've ever dedicated 30 minutes and painted alongside Bob at home, you'll know how relaxing and fun painting dope landscapes can be.
And with the added benefit of being able to pause and see what he did again (not exactly something you could do back in the day unless you taped him doing so) there's no better time than now to experience the joy of painting if you've got a particular artist's itch that needs scratching.