What you didn't know about the life of Bob Ross

Bob Ross. Just his name brings a calm. The soft-spoken painter who didn't make mistakes, only "happy accidents," painted on PBS stations in the 1980s and 1990s. His untimely death in 1995 at the age of 52 occurred just when he was exploding on the pop culture scene. He appeared in a hip MTV spot back when MTV was hip, and then his sudden death seemingly extinguished all he built.

But Bob Ross lives on. There's a Bob Ross bar crawl, and someone's recreating all 403 of his televised paintings. But there's so much people don't know about Bob Ross, so much that will surprise you about the guy with the sweet pipes and sweeter 'fro.

He had a rival

To the viewer, Bob Ross is that happy guy who paints happier trees, and clouds, and rivers. To the artist, Bob Ross is a guy who paints in a very specific and unique way: wet on wet, where paint is applied on a still-wet coat to create the finished piece. Wet on wet dates back to the 1300s, and French impressionists used the method up to the early 20th century. The word on wet on wet is that "no serious artist uses it," and then Bob Ross came along and ... well, critics don't really like him either, but that's not the point.

Ross himself began painting in Alaska and learned his technique from a famed (sort of) wet on wet painter, Bill Alexander. The German-born Alexander appeared on public television before Ross ever did, in the 1970s. Ross dedicated an episode of his Joy of Painting program in Season 2 to his teacher and mentor, but things soured from there. By 1991, Ross wouldn't even mention Alexander by name, telling the New York Times, "(H)e is our major competitor."

Alexander was okay with it. And by "okay," we mean he said, "I invented 'wet on wet.' I trained him, and he is copying me—what bothers me is not just that he betrayed me, but that he thinks he can do it better." Hard to imagine anyone being mad at Bob Chillpants Ross, but it goes to show you: everyone has a rival. Someone out there probably hated Mister Rogers, too.

He was a mean Air Force guy

Bob Ross is the last guy you'd expect to be angry with anyone, but he wasn't always a soft-spoken painter. Ross was born in Daytona Beach, Florida, and made his home in Orlando. If you're wondering how a Florida man made it up to freezing Alaska, he did it the honest way: by joining the military.

Bob Ross enlisted in the Air Force at age 18 and was stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska—a little south of Fairbanks. Ross served 20 years, achieving the rank of master sergeant, before retiring.

Ross wasn't the softy we know and love during his time in the military. He recalled that, "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." After Ross left the Air Force, he vowed never to yell and scream again—which led to his calming TV demeanor.

His fro isn't natural

As recognizable as his sweet voice, the afro Bob Ross sports is the stuff of legend. It's a meme in itself, and every knock-off Halloween afro seller can thank every single sale on people dressing up like Bob Ross. But Bob's fro is as real as his rivalry with Picasso. The trademark hair is just a perm.

But wait, it gets better. He got a perm to save money—no need to waste precious cash on a haircut when it will all just grow into a big ball of awesomeness. And he hated it. He hated every stinkin' curl on his skull, but he couldn't undo his money-saving strategy. The afro became the logo for his company. His business partner Annette Kowalski said, "He could never, ever, ever change his hair, and he was so mad about that. He got tired of that curly hair." He was the only one.

He didn't make any money from his PBS show

Bob Ross achieved fame for his PBS show, but it didn't pay the bills. In case you forgot, PBS stands for Public Broadcasting Service—as in a nonprofit station that gets 15 percent of its funding from the government. So obviously Ross wasn't swimming in it as a PBS star, but he had to make something, right? Eh ... not really.

Ross said that he never got paid for his Joy of Painting program. As in nothing. "People see you on television and they think you make the same amount of money that Clint Eastwood does," he said. "But this is PBS. All these shows are done for free." No wonder Clint Eastwood never permed his hair! Ross made his money teaching, and selling books, and of course selling some of his paintings. Ross also sold videos (remember those?) of his painting system—which were really three-hour workshops that went into more detail on his style.

He almost never painted people

In 2014, the statistical website FiveThirtyEight finally answered the paradox that has kept mortal man up all night: What exactly did Bob Ross paint?

Joy of Painting aired 403 times—Ross only painted 381 times (the others featured guests). As FiveThirtyEight explains, there were 3,224 possibilities for his paintings (they're detailed oriented). You know what Bob liked? Trees. A whopping 91 percent of his paintings contained at least one tree. You know what Bob didn't like? Flowers. Flowers are for suckers. Only 2 percent of his paintings contained flowers. He only painted palm trees 2 percent of the time also, but what do you expect? They're everywhere in Florida. He was probably sick of 'em. If Ross painted a tree (singular), there is a 93 percent chance he'd paint a second tree. Because trees shouldn't be alone, obviously. Surprisingly, for a guy known for his "happy little clouds," his paintings only featured clouds 44 percent of the time. But the only thing he hated more than flowers and palm trees were people. In his 381 paintings, only one featured a person. It was in silhouette against a tree—a lonely cowboy. And of the 18 percent of the time that he painted cabins, only one had a chimney. Must be pretty cold in Bob Rossland.

His originals are worth bank

Actually coming across an original Bob Ross isn't as easy as it seems. In the 381 programs he recorded (thanks again, geeks at FiveThirtyEight!), he painted three per show—one he painted on camera, one beforehand that he used as a guide, and one for close-ups and photography later (ah, the magic of editing). That means he produced 1,143 paintings during his show. Where are they?

For starters, he donated most to PBS stations, who auctioned them off. That presents a little bit of a problem in the art world. Provenance is a fancy word in the art world for "I got this from the artist, here's the proof." The "I bought it from the PBS station in Peoria" isn't going to cut it. But if somehow you have provenance, or just a lot of cash around, you can purchase an original Bob Ross—and they ain't cheap. A Ross can run over $10,000. That's a whole lot of happy trees.

He is mesmerizing

Let's be honest. The reason Bob Ross became so popular wasn't a sudden interest in wet on wet painting. He had a unique look, and his voice could stop a war. His soothing, dulcet tones just sent people to their happy place. There's something about watching a guy paint clouds and trees in a pacifying voice that relaxes people. "We've gotten letters from people who say they sleep better when the show is on," Ross said. And that is the truth.

There's this thing called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. What people with ASMR get when they hear Bob Ross is "the tingles"—a calming, pleasing feeling that is usually associated with sex. Jenn Allen, the founder of ASMR-research.org, chose the word meridian because it's a synonym for "orgasmic."

There isn't any scientific support for ASMR yet, but those who experience it pity those who don't. Have you ever heard a good song and it just gives you that feeling? That's frisson, and it's real. So there is precedent for "something" happening related to sound and the arts. A common thread is that people with post-traumatic stress disorder or insomnia benefit from Bob Ross and his ASMR powers. We'll let you decide if the phenomenon is real or not, preferably by listening to him alone in a darkened room.

He was big in Japan

When you think of the fame of Ross—especially the pop culture icon he became all these years after his death—you don't consider it on a global scale. Yet, somehow, Bob Ross has a following worldwide.

There are certified Bob Ross instructors around the world, but for some reason, Japan took to Bob Ross like Germans to David Hasselhoff. Japanese television station NHK aired The Joy of Painting twice a day for years, and despite a Japanese voiceover translation—something most foreign countries airing the show did not use—the smooth pipes and relaxing mannerisms carried over perfectly. Bob Ross was big in Japan. When he visited the country, Japanese fans mobbed him like he was Madonna or Michael Jackson. His legacy continues there today. Artist Kenichi Yoneda, inspired by Bob Ross, paints using a computer code to create watercolors.

Friend of baby animals

The only thing that Bob Ross enjoyed more than painting was animals. Ross began his painting show in Muncie, Indiana, and immediately facilitated animal rescue organizations there—like feeding a baby squirrel in the above clip. Back at his home in Orlando, Ross turned his backyard into an animal rehabilitation center, caring for squirrels, birds, and pretty much anything that popped up in Florida—which in Florida could be something scary.

He didn't need a big excuse to show off animals during his painting program. The official Ross site cashes in, selling animal-theme named brushes and will teach you how to paint a jaguar for a small fee. It might not be the legacy that Bob Ross intended, but such is life.

His son Steven is a painter

On the 403 Joy of Painting episodes, the most frequent guest was Bob's son Steven. With his hair-band looks, Steve certainly didn't look the part of painter, but his technique without a doubt was on par with his dear old dad.

So if you're wondering what Steve is up to today, he's lying low. You'd think that since they have the Internet on computers now, you can find pretty much anything—and you can, including a very old photo of Steve, his mother, and father Bob. That's Bob's first wife (Bob Ross was divorced!?)—but other than that, Steve doesn't have a lot to do with the Bob Ross empire. A falling out of sorts happened after his father's passing, and Steve left Bob Ross Inc.

Steve Ross still paints, as does Bob's step-son Morgan Ross (from Bob's second wife). The two maintain a low profile online, but Steve is best known for making enough erotic references in one of his Joy of Painting appearances to become a short-lived meme. No wonder he keeps a low profile.

Surprising shrine

If you were a regular viewer of PBS, you probably didn't notice anything different about Ross during his 1994 season. His final episode, which first aired April, 5, 1994, seemed like every other episode. Little did anyone know that he was very ill. Joan Kowalski of Bob Ross Inc. told the Orlando Sentinel in 1995 that he had battled lymphoma for years. His wife Jane died of cancer a few years before the terrible disease took him, according to the New York Times.

Ross lived in the greater Orlando area — he was born just up the road in Daytona Beach and grew up in Orlando — so his final resting place is fittingly where he called home. On the west side of Orlando, nestled between Windermere and Ocoee, sits the tiny town of Gotha. If you drove by it and blinked you'd miss it, but down among the new subdivisions sits a picturesque cemetery — so pretty you could paint it — and there resides the grave of Bob Ross. It's not the easiest grave to find, toward the back of the cemetery but not far from the road. The easiest way to locate it is to look for the artwork. Fans leave their own Ross-inspired works along with miniature animal figurines and paintbrushes to pay tribute to the artist.

He's still everywhere

Bob Ross, somehow, is even more popular today than he was during his life. He has become this go-to pop culture icon that naturally brings a smile to everyone's face when they see that familiar afro. He's also shockingly trendy on the interwebs. How trendy? Well, you know you've made it when they make a Funko Pop of you. And Bob Ross has more than one. Ross once again became a thing in 2018 when his likeness popped up in a most unsuspecting place.

Ryan Reynolds' Deadpool parodied Bob Ross in a super NSFW teaser trailer for Deadpool 2 — and he really nailed it. From the seemingly oddball colors (which were part of the joke for Deadpool) to the ... trippy feeling that some get from Ross' vocals, the Bob Ross machine once again hit viral news. And of course there's a Funko Pop of Deadpool as Ross because there has to be.

He gave high-fours

Bob Ross didn't complete high school, dropping out in ninth grade. But he wasn't running the mean streets of Orlando; instead, he worked with his father as a carpenter. There's no telling how good (or bad) he was at woodworking, but It was during his time as a carpenter that he accidentally lost part of his finger in a saw accident. Despite his later claims, he probably didn't call it a "happy little accident" at the time. He lost the top part of his left index finger, and you probably never even noticed it. Why?

Ross held his palette in his left hand, so unless you were really looking hard for it, you'd never see it. Some now claim the missing digit made Ross self-conscious, but there were plenty of times where he held an animal in his left hand on camera without trying to hide it. Regardless, it never affected his painting — he was right-handed.

In the beginning...

When you think about it, there must've been some heck of a pitch to get The Joy of Painting on air. So we've just got this super soft-spoken guy who's going to paint pictures of mountains ... okay? And somebody said, "Sure." What happens often is that television shows will find their way, so to speak, and as the show matures they'll figure out what works, what doesn't, and eventually that formula will make a success. Then there's Bob Ross.

Bob Ross' official YouTube channel has his very first episode available, along with many others. Once you get over the fact that Bob looks so young, you'll be surprised to see that the first one is just like every other episode. Sure, there's a bit more explanation as to what we're actually seeing, but other than that there's not a whole lot of difference between the first episode and the last. Bob was simply a natural when it came to television, and his folksy style just worked.

Be Like Bob

There's a pretty good chance you don't know a lot about Prussia. In fact, the only thing you may know about Prussia is Prussian Blue thanks to Bob painting up a storm with it. Ross' largest legacy may lie in his line of supplies — which are available at just about every art supply store out there, and online. In case you were wondering, the products are actually really good and have strong reviews pretty much everywhere you'd expect to see them.

But let's say that's not enough for you – you don't want to just paint using Bob Ross paints, you want to be Bob Ross. Well, you can head on over to New Smyrna Beach, Florida, sign up at the Bob Ross Workshop, and learn to paint like the man himself. You can even become a certified Bob Ross instructor. It's probably not cheap, but can you really put a price on becoming more like Bob Ross?

The real family dynamic

Ross was fiercely private about his personal life — so much so that there's a bit of mystery about his marriages and children. Here's what we know for sure — Ross was actually married three times. His first marriage was to the former Vicky Ridge in 1965, which ended in divorce. His next marriage occurred in Spokane, Washington, to Jane Zanardelli Worstell in 1977. Jane died in August 1992. According to various (tangled, rambling) social media posts by a woman who seems to be Vicky Ross (Bob's first wife), Bob married Lynda Brown in 1993. She worked at the doctor's office Bob frequented, according to Vicky. They were only married for a few months until Ross passed. Vicky does talk quite often about her ex-husband, and she says on her Facebook that the two remained close despite the divorce.

According to Vicky, Ross had one stepson, Morgan, from his wife Jane, and a total of two natural children. Vicky and Bob had one son, Steve, who is well-known and appeared in a number of episodes of the original show. Vicky says Steve's real name is actually Robert. According to a commenter claiming to be Vicky, Ross also had another son — named Bobby, although she alleges he didn't use the Ross last name — that Ross fathered as a teenager. It's ... a confusing web, basically. At the very least, we know that all of Bob Ross' children are keeping a pretty low profile, just like their father.