“We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents.” These are the words of Bob Ross, arguably the most recognizable painter in the United States.
It’s an astounding accomplishment to become as popular as Bob Ross, the host of The Joy of Painting, a PBS show that ran from 1983 to 1994. He passed away in 1995 at the age of 52 from lymphoma, and yet we’re still talking about him over 25 years later.
It shouldn’t have worked. You had an offbeat instructor on a low-budget TV station headquartered in Muncie, Indiana. Contemporary critics loved to rag on him over perceived notions of poor technique and oversimplification (despite the 25-minute format of his show).
And yet he has 2 million followers posthumously on Twitch, and another 5 million on YouTube. You can buy a Bob Ross clothes, calendars, and Chia pets. You can buy the board game, Bob Ross: Art of Chill. His work is even hanging in a museum where he used to record his show.
Even in the afterlife, Bob Ross is helping budding artists draw happy little trees.
Who is Bob Ross?
If you’re not familiar with Bob Ross, reading about the basic verifiable facts won’t capture the whole picture. Yes, he was the host of The Joy of Painting on PBS. Yes, a lot of people watched it and enjoyed it very much, so much so that he’s still getting streamed online to this day. But watching Bob Ross on TV is such a specific experience that you really have to see it to get it. (That’s why I’ve included clips throughout).
Here’s the basic idea – if you stumbled across his show on PBS, you’d inevitably see a man in his 40’s with a perm sitting against a black backdrop in front of an easel, holding a palette. On his 25-minute show, Bob Ross would start with a blank canvas and just start painting. It was just about always landscapes.
The show itself was educational, but not on matters of technique. Rather, Bob Ross wanted to show how all you need to do to paint is paint. It was a show about not getting in your head, not getting mired down in the details, and just doing the creative work you love simply because you love it.
He is so consistently calm and positive, that many people who didn’t care anything about painting watched him anyway. It was calming then, just as it is now, to watch a nonjudgmental, not threatening presence on TV doing something enjoyable.
1. Bob Ross’s true art form was encouraging people, not painting.
I’ve read a lot of thinkpieces on Bob Ross about why he has remained popular through the 2010s and the 2020s. In that process, I’ve frequently stumbled across assertions that amount to “he’s a calming presence in this polarized, argumentative world.” Others will say something like “he’s the perfect antidote to COVID-era anxiety.”
I don’t disagree with these takes. But I actually think Bob Ross’s true appeal is simpler and more primal.
We’re all programmed with certain ideas about what “good” art is. We’re taught there’s a right way and a wrong way to create, no matter what our medium is. Art is only good if someone pays for it, or if it gets social media follows, or if certain cultural critics like it, and so on.
These flawed preconceived notions kill our creative ideas before they even have a chance to be expressed.
That doesn’t mean that everything you create will be what you want it to be. But it’s still important to create anyway. Quantity is a pretty reliable path to quality in creative endeavors, and quitting before making any tangible progress is what destroys artists. Not one bad painting, one bad article, or anything like that.
Bob Ross is good painter – better than he receives credit for. But his real art, the art that really stands the test of time, is that he has encouraged artists to do their work anyway, despite what anyone says, and without making any person or institution out to be an enemy. He tells people to create because they want to – for the joy of painting.
There’s a very good chance that 50 years from now, the Rembrandt or Picasso of Generation Z will say “I saw a Bob Ross Twitch stream once and it inspired me to create.” I can’t think of a higher art form.
2. Everything about Bob Ross’s image was consistent.
This is a marketing blog, so you know I can’t just chalk up his success to him making people feel good. I mean, that’s an important part of why his TV show fit with his audience. But that’s not the whole story.
If you want to stand out in television, you need to be iconic. This is no different than the golden rule of branding, which is always be consistent.
And Bob Ross was incredibly consistent. He’d always show up with his permed out hair and the top two buttons of his button down undone. He’d always be painting a nature landscape in 25 minutes. Bob Ross was always saying encouraging things and rattling off quotes like:
- Ever make mistakes in life? Let’s make them birds. Yeah, they’re birds now.
- Talent is a pursued interest. Anything you’re willing to practice, you can do.
- You can do anything you want. This is your world.
- I really believe that if you practice enough, you could paint The Mona Lisa with a two-inch brush.
You always knew that he was going to be using Cadmium Yellow or Titanium White paint. You always knew he was going to beat his brush to get the paint off.
He was like clockwork, and that added not only to the meditative quality of his show but the recognizability of his brand.
3. Watching him on TV made people feel calmer and more content.
Bob Ross was clearly tapping into something people needed to see. His show proved there was a large untapped audience of people who needed general encouragement to pursue their creative passions. His steady public persona made it easier for him to have a personal brand that stood out and remained recognizable.
But as always, the most important part of any TV show becoming popular is not the writing, the acting, the script, or the stage design. It’s all about the emotions that the audience feels. Emotions are what make people make decisions anyway.
Just read a few of these IMDb reviews and note where I’ve bolded certain emotional words.
I so enjoy Bob Ross “The Joy Of Painting” and used to watch it each day it was on. I found it entrancing the way he can create, describe and instruct us to do the painting. He has such a soft embracing voice as he instructs as though he really cares about what he is doing.src34
I started to watch The Joy of Painting thanks to Twitch, and it changed my life.
No matter what you do with your life, Bob will help you to be persistent, to never quit, to always go after your dreams. He was so calm, so kind, such an inspirational person.
You don’t need to paint, you can just listen to him talking to you and you will feel the peace. If you feel angry, if you feel demotivated, just watch Bob painting his beautiful paintings and listen to him talking to you, I guarantee you will feel better.
Thank you, Bob!dancpontes
I used to watch this show whenever I had the chance when I was a young child, and it would always relax me. The soft voice…the “Dab..dab…dab” and the “happy trees….they are happy” would relax my mood and make ME happy.mnaso
4. Twitch streaming gave Bob Ross an afterlife.
So often when something from the 1980s or 1990s comes back into vogue, the new media are responsible. Bob Ross is no exception, because despite having passed away almost 20 years before the birth of Twitch, he is a livestream legend.
In 2015, Twitch sought to celebrate what would have been Bob Ross’s 73rd birthday by streaming The Joy of Painting. Ultimately, Twitch reported that 5.6 million unique viewers ended up watching the stream. This is such a smashing success that Twitch committed to showing a Bob Ross livestream every Monday from 12 PM EST to 6:30 PM EST. This went on for a really long time.
These days, Twitch does not live-stream Bob Ross on the same schedule. Yet you can still watch Bob Ross any time you like on Twitch or YouTube. Some of his YouTube videos even have over 8 million views!
Take away Twitch and YouTube and it’s unlikely that Bob Ross would be as much of a legend as he is among younger people. The simple fact is that it’s hard to get young people to sit down in front of a TV to watch a show. It’s unlikely that The Joy of Painting would be doing as well if it were only accessible by VHS, DVD, or Blu-Ray. Even if it were streaming on Netflix or Hulu, the fact that those companies require paid subscriptions would hobble the success of Bob Ross in the mainstream.
Take a consistent, encouraging, and calming presence and make his work widely available. It’s hardly a surprise that he caught on with a much younger audience!
5. He’s a pretty good painter too.
I’ve said that Bob Ross’s true talent was encouraging people, and I stand by that. But truth be told, if he sat on his chair and painted terrible paintings episode after episode, people wouldn’t watch him. They wouldn’t feel encouraged to pursue their own creative work. He was – and needed to be – excellent at the actual job of painting.
His paintings are highly sentimental and he never deviated from landscapes devoid of people. For that, a lot of critics dinged him.
But his “wet-on-wet” painting technique, in which paint is applied on top of paint before individual layers can dry, is older than you’d think. In fact, this technique is also known as alla prima and has been used by Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh. This technique is rooted in the 16th century, and it’s not some vulgar concession to the needs of television.
Even in the low quality recordings of a PBS show from the 1980s, you can see that his painted layers don’t bleed or get muddy. This is especially impressive when you consider he painted full paintings in 25 minutes, while talking to an audience, while being on camera and sitting in a spotlight.
Bob Ross wasn’t one to get into the weeds, but he was still able to convey the basics of mixing colors and caring for brushes and knives with concision and droll wit. Given that television has a reputation for being a fool’s medium, he was able to make his show impressively information dense without compromising the calming nature of it.
If that’s not pure competency at work, then I really don’t know what is.
There is nothing like watching Bob Ross. He is calming and kind, encouraging and friendly, consistent and steady. Despite his show airing in the 1980s and 1990s, he feels tailor-made for our current moment.
As more people break into creative lifestyles powered by the internet, more people will brush up against the fears and hang-ups that have plagued creatives for all eternity. Bob Ross was a singular force, pushing back against the feeling of not being good enough. So it’s no surprise he makes so many people feel calm and relaxed.
At the same time, Bob Ross is instantly recognizable. His distinct hair and way of speaking and his instantly recognizable painting technique made it easy to remember him. His authentic behavior just so happened to make for a wonderfully consistent and recognizable brand.
Even in death, Bob Ross was the perfect character for modern media. In some ways, he was the original livestreamer. So perhaps it’s no surprise that when Twitch picked him up by chance that his popularity soared as a result. And now we can all be very thankful that he’s still relevant even today.