And now, his icon status is getting fuel from an unlikely place: local library paint-alongs with wait lists to get in.
From Oregon to Utah to New York, people are vying for spots at Bob Ross paint-alongs. Library branches show episodes of Bob Ross’s “The Joy of Painting” and provide materials for devotees to follow along and create their own landscape masterpieces. The majority of them are free, and a few charge minimal materials fee.
The events have become so popular that some people are waiting up to six months to snag a place. It’s the latest incarnation of Bob Ross mania, in which his face is trademarked, his permed hair is celebrated and his gentle approach to life is captivating legions of new followers.
“We don’t make mistakes,” he famously said in his soothing baritone as he put brush to canvas. “We have happy accidents.”
People watch his show just as much — perhaps more — for his philosophizing than for his art. His paintings are accessible to the masses who try to duplicate his serene landscapes — and who know that making art with Bob Ross is a journey, not a destination.
“All you need is a dream in your heart and an almighty knife,” Ross said from the screen as he scraped thick paint into snowdrifts while a dozen people at a small Utah library painstakingly tried to imitate him one afternoon in May.
Ross’s appeal has lasted the decades because of everything he is not. In our noisy, look-at-me Internet world, Ross’s tranquil manner is an oasis.
“YouTubers are packing their videos with action in fear of losing the viewers’ attention if they don’t provide something for every second,” Felix Auer, a Bob Ross fan from Vienna, Austria wrote in an email. “Bob however takes his time, often saying nothing and doing nothing except moving a brush for several seconds, and it all seems very genuine.”
In the most recent nod to Ross, the meditation and sleep app Calm added his voice to soothe listeners.
Many of Ross’s biggest fans are not even aspiring painters. They’re drawn by his ability to drop wisdom as he brings a painting to life in less than 30 minutes.
“They’re so many tips he says that are also life lessons,” said Jen Scott, a Salt Lake City librarian who helps organize paint-alongs, repeating one of his mantras: “‘It takes dark in order to show light.’”
“In these times when everything seems so controversial and everyone fighting with each other and all of this bad news all the time — it’s very uplifting to hear these things,” Scott said. “People feel this connection with Bob Ross — that he’s their friend.”
Ross, who died in 1995 of lymphoma at age 52, made hundreds of episodes of “The Joy of Painting” in his heyday between 1983 and 1994. Estimated viewership of the show while Ross was alive was often more than 2 million per week.
In his episodes, he transforms blank canvas into an idyllic landscape while peacefully narrating his step-by-step technique of wet-on-wet oil painting. Wearing a button-down shirt and blue jeans, he layers wet paint to blend color and create texture with seemingly simple brushstrokes. The camera focuses tightly on him and his canvas. Paradise swiftly emerges.
All the while, viewers hear Ross’s velvety voice convincing even the most anxious painter that she could indeed make the same masterpiece. And maybe make life a little better.
“When you paint, you begin to see things — let them happen, just let them happen,” said Ross in one episode. “Don’t worry about them. Learn to compose as you paint. Learn to take advantage of what happens. We call those ‘happy accidents,’ and they can be your best friend.”
Mike Fox, 29, from Pittsburgh, discovered “Joy of Painting” via YouTube after graduating from college. He was unemployed and alone.
“I remember distinctly one of the first episodes that I watched he says, ‘Gotta have opposites, dark and light, light and dark in a painting. It’s like in life. Gotta have a little sadness once in a while so you know when the good times come. I’m waiting on the good times now,’ ” Fox said in an email. “These lines had immense impact. This famous painter, an accomplished artist by any measure, was like me: wearing a smile as a mask and struggling to persevere.”
Ellen Marie Lewis, 24, a library assistant in Salt Lake City, said her friends told her that they sometimes fall asleep at night after putting on “The Joy of Painting” on YouTube or Netflix. They weren’t bored — they were comforted.
So Ross seemed like a potential draw at the new Marmalade Branch in Salt Lake City where Lewis helped organize events in 2017.
The paint-alongs’ overwhelming popularity was so striking that other Utah libraries launched their own. More than 200 people joined the wait list after the Sweet Branch in Salt Lake City began its 20-person monthly paint-alongs last fall. At least four other Utah libraries started more paint-alongs, and more than 15 libraries across the nation contacted Sweet Branch for help in setting up events of their own, librarians there said.
In Panama City, Fla., Sarah Burris, community and marketing coordinator for the Northwest Regional Library System, recently helped organize her library’s first Bob Ross event on June 26 with 20 people.
“We had our first Paint Like Bob Ross and it was a blast!,” she wrote in an email. “Everyone left happy and had fun.”
The Daniel Boone Branch library in St. Louis held its first Bob Ross paint-along for 24 people in May and had a 15-person waiting list. When librarians asked participants how many were habitual painters or hobbyists, no one raised their hands.
The library is planning monthly Bob Ross events for the next year. Organizers hope to buy a Bob Ross cardboard cutout so people can have their picture taken with the icon.
“Bob always wanted to make his programs very timeless, because his hope was it would show years and years after he was gone,” said Joan Kowalski, president of Bob Ross Inc., a painting supply, gift and licensing company, based in Herndon, Va. “He nailed it.”
His words and likeness have been turned into memes. One popular one: “It’s so important to do something every day that will make you happy.”
LeAnne Franke and her brother were at a Salt Lake City library paint-along this spring. A concussion had left her seeking an alternative form of relaxation, and she started watching Ross’s shows at home. Then she wanted to make art with other people.
“You get to turn your brain off for a minute and just paint,” the 26-year-old said.
When Twitch, an Internet streaming platform, held a Bob Ross marathon in 2015, a reported 5.6 million people watched.
Auer, the fan from Austria, was one of them. After buying painting supplies, he found it was just as easy as Ross portrayed. But choosing which episode on YouTube to paint was hard — he had to skip to the end to see whether he liked the final product and then to the beginning to see whether he had the right colors.
To solve the problem, the graduate student created a website, TwoInchBrush.com, that is a searchable database of all 403 episodes.
During the Twitch marathon, the folks at Bob Ross Inc. noted a significant increase in calls from libraries seeking permission to show an episode. And Kowalski still hears from about one a month. She figures that many more never call to ask, instead just showing it from YouTube.
Since Bob Ross Inc. owns rights to the Bob Ross name, images and video, Kowalski “strongly” urges libraries to use a certified Bob Ross instructor.
Her parents went into business with Ross and his wife after her mom discovered him in Florida. Ross was still an unknown painter traveling in his Datsun motor home, filled with paints, canvases and brushes.
Ross, who served in the Air Force, perfected the compellingly simple technique that art fans say is part of his appeal. But it’s also his repeated use of familiar phrases, the mountains that become “little rascals,” the “happy little trees,” and overall positivity.
In one episode, Ross spoke about his military past.
“I’d come home after all day of playing soldier and I’d paint a picture, and I could paint the kind of world that I wanted,” he said. “It was clean, it was sparkling, shiny, beautiful, no pollution, nobody upset — everybody was happy in this world.”
In libraries and with Chia Pets and cardboard cutouts across the country, people are grasping at the past to be part of Bob Ross’s happy world.
Julia Lyon is a journalist based in Salt Lake City.
This story has been updated to reflect that Bob Ross Inc. prefers libraries to use a certified Bob Ross instructor.