14 happy little facts about Bob Ross and his paintings

Bob Ross paints an image.
Acey Harper / Getty Images

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Bob Ross is best known for his now-legendary PBS show, “The Joy of Painting.” He talked viewers through each painting, step by step, in a soothing tone. He encouraged people to paint with thoughts tailor-made to be printed onto an inspiration poster, like, “You can do it. All you need is a dream in your heart.”

Ross’ show aired from 1983 to 1994, when he was diagnosed with lymphoma. He died in 1995 at 52, but his legacy lives on in the more than 400 episodes of his series. The friendly artist’s notoriety has continued to bloom with merchandise like coloring books and Halloween costumes. There’s even a Run for the Trees Happy Little 5K held annually in his honor that supports tree planting at state parks across the U.S.

Here are 14 happy little facts about Bob Ross you might not have known.

1. He was an Air Force drill sergeant

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Before he became known for his little trees, Ross had a big voice as a U.S. Air Force drill sergeant based in Alaska. His soft-spoken television persona was in direct contrast to his time spent barking orders at new recruits. The Calm app offers voice recordings of episodes like “Happy Little Zzzs With Bob Ross.” Fans can also check out the current Bob Ross podcast that honors his legacy.

2. He learned to paint watching another artist’s show

Ross was in an Alaskan tavern when he first saw William Alexander’s PBS show, “The Magic of Oil Painting.” He credited Alexander for teaching him his wet-on-wet technique. Alexander inspired Ross to bring happiness to his show, and trees.

3. Ross donated many paintings to PBS

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At the end of each show, Ross had created a completed painting. He donated many of them for PBS donor drives and fundraisers. In 2023, the first painting he created on air went up for sale at a staggering price of nearly $10 million. “A Walk in the Woods,” from 1983, features his familiar happy little trees.

4. Ross was missing part of a finger

Due to a childhood accident helping his carpenter father, Ross lost part of his left index finger. Never one to let difficulties stop him, he adapted to accommodate the loss. If you never noticed this despite watching countless episodes of his show, that’s probably because he held the palette with his left hand, blocking the affected finger.

5. His iconic hairstyle was a budgetary choice

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Originally, Ross says he permed his hair to save money on haircuts. By the time he could afford haircuts, the perm was part of his image and had to stay, despite him reportedly not even being a fan of those tight curls.

6. Even the pros struggle to mimic his technique

While Ross framed his show as a half-hour instructional on how to paint, it’s safe to say most viewers just like watching him work. Still, there are instructors certified in Ross’ wet-on-wet technique that can teach you how to paint landscapes like the late master. One of those certified teachers, Kathleen Sheppard, told a local PBS station in Columbus, Ohio, that it took her eight hours to complete a Ross-style painting when she first started.

7. He once created a painting in gray for a color-blind man

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Ross encouraged his audience to send in painting ideas and photos of their completed art. He chose to do one special painting after meeting a man who said he couldn’t paint due to his colorblindness. Ross believed “anyone can paint” and created the episode to reflect that. He combined brown, blue, and white paint, but the final result was a greyscale painting entitled “Shades of Gray.”

8. He painted gold panning tins before canvases

While Ross his known for trees on canvases, he started out painting landscapes on gold panning tins. During his military stint in Alaska, he sold the gold pan paintings for extra money.

9. He truly loved animals

During Ross’ childhood in Florida, he kept an alligator in a bathtub, nursing it back to health. While he’s known for loving little trees, he also loved little animals as an adult. One of his favorites was a squirrel called Peapod the Pocket Squirrel that he often carried, as the name suggests, in his pocket. His bird friends also made appearances on his show, including Hoot the Baby Owl, Midnight the Crow, and Mr. Jay the Bluejay.

10. Ross was a global sensation

Ross may seem like the quintessential modern American painter but he taught painting and his show was broadcast in countries outside the United States including Japan, Costa Rica and Mexico. Beloved in Holland, there’s even a Bob Ross amaryllis flower in the signature red with which he signed his name.

11. He worked for free

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Ross believed sharing his painting techniques and happy thoughts was enough. He worked at PBS for no payment, making money from Bob Ross, Inc. The store also features free how-to videos and Bob Ross event options.

12. Ross could film an entire season in two days

Ross was known to film an entire season of 13 episodes in only two days. Filming so quickly let him return to his true love: teaching art classes in person.

13. His paintings are in the Smithsonian

In 1990, Ross spoke to the Orlando Sentinel of anyone being able to paint a picture they were proud of. Even if “it may never hang in the Smithsonian. but it will certainly be something that they’ll hang in their home and be proud of. And that’s what it’s all about.” While most of Ross’ paintings are stored at the Bob Ross Inc. warehouses in Virginia, his paintings are now also in the Smithsonian’s collection. In 2020, several of his paintings, an easel, palette and brushes were acquired for the American History Museum in Washington, DC.

14. A 2024 ‘Joy of Painting’ reboot features unseen Bob Ross paintings

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Ross had already created eight paintings meant for the unfinished 32nd season of “The Joy of Painting” that weren’t seen by the public. In April 2024, artist Nicholas Hankins began recreating those paintings in “The Joy of Painting with Nicholas Hankins” on PBS.

Sarah Lewton contributed to this report.

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Amy Barnes writing credits include sites like Chowhound, Forbes, Farm Flavor, Parade's Relish, The Spruce Eats, Realtor.com, USAToday Reviewed, Popsugar, Apartment Therapy, Fodor's Travel, Clean Plates, Gayot, Motherly, Romper, Parent.co, Southern Living, Allrecipes, and Well+Good. She's a recent empty nester who lives in a Nashville suburb.

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