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(Credit: Far Out / Jeff Nyveen / British Library / Charlota Blunarova)


The iconic impact of Bob Ross on popular culture

Every so often, television produces a figure that goes on to become so iconic, that they supersede their original purpose, holding more profound importance for the public than anyone ever expected.

Whilst the UK has had more than its fair share of these people with characters such as Keith Floyd, Gordon Ramsey and Michael Parkinson, America has had a true abundance of them. After all, America is the bastion of all things lights, camera, action, so this is unsurprising.

One of the most iconic television personalities America ever produced was Bob Ross. His afro and calming demeanour are two of his most enduring facets, as well as the fact that he was an outstanding artist. Perhaps the nicest man to have ever graced the small screen, Ross captured the hearts of three different generations at the height of his fame.

A painter with a penchant for the outdoors, Ross’ show, The Joy of Painting, showed millions that painting was not just for the educated. Anyone could do it as long as you followed his simple instructions. Although he wasn’t the first to do it by any account, Bob Ross effectively kicked off the art instruction television show as we know it when The Joy of Painting first aired on PBS in 1983. The show’s unmistakable style set the stage for shows such as Art Attack and SMart that we loved as children over here in the UK. 

Famously, Ross’ technique of choice was wet-on-wet oil painting, where he painted over a thin base layer of wet paint, allowing him to craft vivid scenes quickly. Using this method, the painting could progress without having to dry first, which was perfect for TV, instilling his demonstration in real time, casting off the age-old “here’s one I made earlier”. Added to this, the technique only used a small selection of tools and colours, which for audiences, made painting more accessible as they didn’t have to fork out on expensive equipment that they’d never use. 

Ross regularly recommended using odourless paint thinner for brush cleaning, showing how unconventional he could be. He also frequently used one large brush and two-inch brushes, alongside painting knives as his primary tools, and by the dawn of the ’90s, many people had mastered their own painting style thanks to Bob Ross. 

When Ross tragically passed away prematurely at the age of 52 in 1995 due to complications from lymphoma, the world was in mourning. To be frank, he left a void that has never been filled. During the dark days that we’ve experienced during the 21st century, Ross’ relaxed demeanour and catchphrases have provided an antidote to many during the more fraught times we’ve experienced as of late.

Additionally, his comments about caring for nature and animals are as pertinent as ever, given that we’re standing on the brink of a catastrophic environmental collapse. Watching today, when Ross delivers his signature line, “let’s add some happy little trees”, we’re reminded of all the work that has to be done to save the environment from irreversible destruction.

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During the height of the pandemic in 2020, Ross enjoyed something of a resurgence with phrases such as “we don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents” and “believe that you can do it cause you can do it”, instilling us with the hope that we needed to get us through the day. The classic line, “let’s get crazy”, is enough to make even the stuffiest watcher loosen up and let the warmth of Ross’ Flordia tones wash over them as being on Daytona Beach itself. 

Aside from his afro, catchphrases, and demi-god-like demeanour, Ross wore the same outfit every show, which has also gone down in legend. He donned jeans and a plain, light coloured shirt, which he believed would be a timeless look, and he was right. In many ways, you could argue that his wardrobe was closely aligned with Don Henley‘s during his Eagles days. 

Coupled with this, the way in which Ross spoke into the camera as if addressing one viewer was actually groundbreaking. It was a technique that pulled you in instantly and immersed you in Bob Ross’ world. Akin to therapy, The Joy of Painting, shows the positive power that TV can have.

Once, when asked about his peaceful approach, Ross explained: “I got a letter from somebody here a while back, and they said, ‘Bob, everything in your world seems to be happy.’ That’s for sure. That’s why I paint. It’s because I can create the kind of world that I want, and I can make this world as happy as I want it. Shoot, if you want bad stuff, watch the news.”

Aside from Ross’ company Bob Ross Inc. being ubiquitous in stores everywhere, keeping his spirit alive, Ross has also permeated popular culture for the past 30 years in other ways. His image has appeared across TV, film and video games, and he’s been parodied in Family Guy, The Boondocks and Deadpool 2.  

A true legend who showed us how to paint and live properly, it is likely that we’ll still be talking about Bob Ross for years to come.

Watch Bob Ross: The Happy Painter below.