Bob Ross was probably the nicest person who ever lived, and it showed through in his work. Most of America knows him as the host of the long-running show, "The Joy of Painting," but a select few know him better as an Air Force military training instructor -- a drill sergeant, for you non-Air Force types.
Raised in Orlando, Florida, Robert Norman Ross was always a gentle person. As a kid, he would nurse injured animals back to health, even going so far as to raise a baby alligator in the family bathtub. He never graduated from high school and went to work with his dad as a carpenter. Viewers may not have noticed part of his left index finger is missing on the show as a result of that work.
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He enlisted in the Air Force in 1961 at age 18 and spent 20 years in the service, rising to the rank of master sergeant. He was even a first sergeant at the base clinic at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. That's where he saw snow and mountains -- frequent features of his painting work -- for the first time.
It's hard to believe that there are some former airmen out there who first met Ross, of all people, while he was shouting at them in a Smokey Bear campaign hat. While it's true he taught basic training, that was not the career path he wanted for himself.
"I was 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," Ross later said. "The job requires you to be a mean, tough person, and I was fed up with it. I promised myself that if I ever got away from it, it wasn't going to be that way anymore."
How Bob Ross Started Painting
The Air Force is also where he picked up his "happy accident" of a post-military career in art.
Ross enjoyed painting so much, he took art classes at the base USO offices. But he was frequently frustrated at the instruction, recalling "They'd tell you what makes a tree, but they wouldn't tell you how to paint a tree." Like any good airman, he didn't just notice problems. He came up with solutions. One of those was a way of teaching people how to create a complete work of art within 30 minutes.
In order to paint as much as he wanted, he picked up a centuries-old, quick-painting technique now known as wet-on-wet oil painting. Ross credited William Alexander, a German-born artist and host of a TV show, "The Magic of Oil Painting." with teaching him the style. He also improved on that and developed his own style of creating quick landscapes.
This is how Ross not only completed an entire painting in one show, but also an estimated 25,000-30,000 paintings over the course of his lifetime.
''I developed ways of painting extremely fast,'' Ross said. ''I used to go home at lunch and do a couple while I had my sandwich. I'd take them back that afternoon and sell them.''
Veteran Bob Ross Post-Military Career
Ross began his artistic career by painting on the bottoms of gold pots, which he would sell for $25 each. Eventually, he moved on to canvases. When he eventually was earning more selling paintings than he made in the Air Force, he decided to call it quits for his time in the military and retired in 1981.
He would begin working with Alexander, no longer just watching his show, but working as the artist's apprentice. He taught the technique to others, and when Alexander retired, he dubbed Ross his successor.
In 1983, he began painting on television from Muncie, Indiana's WIPB PBS affiliate. His now-famous program, "The Joy of Painting," featured him painting one work per episode, explaining his work in a calm, relaxing tone. He dedicated the first episode to his mentor.
"Years ago, Bill taught me this fantastic technique," Ross told viewers. "And I feel as though he gave me a precious gift, and I'd like to share that gift with you."
"The Joy of Painting" ran for 11 years on PBS, and Ross did every episode for free, cranking out a 13-episode season in just two days. His real income generator was teaching painting and selling art supplies through the Bob Ross Company. After two days on set, he could get back to his real work.
Somewhere in that time, 93 million viewers came to know him through his iconic perm hairdo, which is one he hated. But he kept the style because it was so integral to the brand.
Ross died in 1995 from lymphoma after creating tens of thousands of paintings -- two exact copies of each painting featured on the show -- and never sold any of them. He either sent them to charities, or they were kept by PBS.
-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.
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