The Joy of Bob Ross and Those Happy Little Trees

November 10, 2023

Even if you’ve never stepped foot inside an art gallery or museum, chances are you’ve heard the name Bob Ross. You might also know about Bob Ross’s famous “happy little trees” or “happy little clouds.” Bob Ross, an iconic figure in the art world, left behind a legacy that transcends generations. His soothing voice, boundless creativity, and iconic afro made him a beloved public figure and household name. His beloved show, ‘The Joy of Painting’, continues to inspire and delight.

To some, Bob Ross may appear as just another painter, but it’s much more complex than that. He was an artist, a teacher, and a master of a unique painting technique that captivated millions. Through ‘The Joy of Painting’, Ross invited viewers into the magic of painting and empowered everyday people to paint and create alongside him. He unlocked viewers’ imaginations and showed them a world brimming with possibilities.

In this exploration of his legacy, we’ll journey through Bob Ross's early years, the magic of his show, the controversies he faced, as well as the enduring love for his paintings.

What Does Bob Ross Have To Do With Landscape Photography?

"Happy Little Trees" is much more than a catchy phrase. As an artist, "Happy Little Accidents" happen far more often than many would ever admit to. I grew up watching Bob Ross on television and was inspired by not only his art but his positive personality as well. As landscape photography has drifted farther from documentary style photographs and closer to the strange world of AI, many artists look to create magical, dreamy representations of their work that often resemble paintings themselves. Bob had a great eye for composition in his work and many photographers today are out looking to capture similar scenes every day.

Golden Season

The last light of a chilly autumn day comes to a close in a kaleidoscope of color both on earth and in the sky as seen from Last Dollar Road near Telluride, Colorado. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50.

‘The Joy of Painting’ Television Series’ First Painting Up for Auction

According to The Art Newspaper, the painting that was completed on air during the very first episode of ‘The Joy of Painting’ – a piece called A Walk in the Woods – has been priced at $9.85 million. The Minneapolis-based gallery Modern Artifact said that the price was intended to be a “not-for-sale-number,” and added that they hoped to take the work on tour.

While A Walk in the Woods is but one of the nearly 30,000 paintings Ross allegedly created throughout his lifetime, few of the paintings have ever gone to auction. Many of the works created on his show were donated to PBS member stations, the Smithsonian Museum, or have been kept by Bob Ross Inc.

A Walk in the Woods was previously owned by a woman who frequently volunteered at the very station where Ross recorded his iconic television show. She had won the painting in a fundraising auction to support the station. Many of Ross’s paintings have shared this fate, and collectors say it’s difficult to know how many originals are still out there in circulation or storage.

But exactly who is the man behind the Bob Ross brand, and how did one of his paintings fetch a 10 million dollar price tag? While his show didn’t take off until the mid-80s, his story begins back in the middle of the twentieth century, just as America was getting involved in World War II.

Bob Ross | The Early Years

The artistic virtuoso who would later become a beloved television personality came from humble beginnings that contributed to his unique approach to art. Born October 29, 1942, in Daytona Beach, Florida, Ross had an early affinity for creativity. His childhood was marked by an innate curiosity and a love for nature, a trait that would greatly influence his later artistic endeavors.

Growing up, Ross had a penchant for caring for injured and orphaned animals, which enriched his deep connection with the natural world. This incredible empathy and affinity for nature, coupled with an early fascination with painting, would ultimately set the stage for his future success.

Tragically, his early life was not without its hardships. Ross faced much personal loss, including the passing of his father when he was just an adolescent. Despite the many challenges he faced, Ross persevered, and his passion for art only grew stronger.

Ross's early art journey was formalized during his 20-year career with the U.S. Air Force, where he initially served as a medical records technician. During his service, Ross discovered the “wet-on-wet” oil painting technique, which would later become his signature method. Inspired by a show on public-access television, he began to experiment more with this technique, and it eventually became the hallmark of his artistic expression.

Bob Ross | Personal Life and Family

As Ross served in the U.S. Air Force and began to practice some of the artistic techniques that would come to define his career, his personal life was also evolving. Ross was married thrice in his lifetime and had two children.

His first marriage was to Lynda Brown, and together, they had a son named Steve. While this marriage ended in divorce, Ross found love again with his second wife, Jane, who was a crucial figure in his life and career.

Despite his fame, Ross managed to keep much of his life and personal history private. Little is known about his formative years, his stint in the U.S. Air Force, or the details surrounding his first marriage. He had a knack for focusing on the positive and creating a sense of serenity when he was on-screen, and it seems that he carried a similar philosophy with him throughout his personal dealings.

A recent Netflix documentary, Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed, seeks to unveil some of the mystery surrounding Ross’s formative years, and who he was off the set. But many critics say the documentary instead focuses on the legal battles that ensued with the handling of the Bob Ross brand after his death in 1995.

This enigmatic quality has only added to the allure of the artist, leaving adoring fans with more questions than answers about the man who painted such happy little trees.

Seasons Flame

Autumn soldiers make their final transformation, shifting into the cold of winter outside Ridgway, Colorado along Last Dollar Road. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50.

The Life and Work of Bob Ross

Ross’s paintings, often characterized by serene wilderness landscapes, invited viewers to believe that they, too, could create magical scenes with practice and a few key techniques. His gentle and encouraging demeanor reassured beginners and seasoned artists alike, and his show made art more accessible to everyone.

Despite his popularity and impact, Ross’s work transcended the canvas – he also founded his own art instruction company, Bob Ross Inc., which aimed to continue his artistic legacy by encouraging aspiring artists.

Through his life and work, Bob Ross remains a symbol of artistic inspiration, a testament to the therapeutic power of painting, and he remains a cherished figure who continues to bring the joy of art to people of all ages and backgrounds.

The Joy of Painting and Happy Little Accidents

Airing from 1983 to 1994, Bob Ross’s ‘The Joy of Painting’ captivated viewers and left an indelible mark on the art world and popular culture. For nearly 400 episodes, Ross’s smile enchanted the camera and wowed audiences from all over the country.

The show’s format was simple, yet enchanting. Each episode features Bob Ross with a blank canvas and a paint palette. He would warmly greet viewers before creating a stunning landscape painting from start to finish, all within a half-hour timeframe. With Ross's impeccable wet-on-wet technique, he could quickly blend colors and move them around the canvas with precision to create beautiful landscapes.

Bob Ross’s soothing, encouraging voice became an integral part of the show’s surprising appeal. His calm demeanor and comforting words were there to reassure viewers. Ross often said that even people who had never picked up a paintbrush before could create art. He often used phrases such as “happy little accidents” and encouraged viewers to view mistakes as creative opportunities, rather than lamentable flaws.

Throughout the series, Ross paints a wide range of landscapes – from tranquil groves to majestic mountains and serene, shimmering lakes. Ross’s ability to create these masterpieces in mere minutes was part of the spell the show cast over audiences. His paintings often conveyed his deep connection to nature, and even though you were watching a guy with an afro painting on your television, you felt like you were on a nature hike with an old friend.

‘The Joy of Painting’ and its legacy extends beyond its run on the air; it continues to inspire new generations of artists and remains popular on various streaming platforms.

Bob Ross Controversies and Criticisms

While audiences broadly adored Bob Ross and his on-screen personality, some aspects of his career and techniques garnered scrutiny, and he was not without his share of controversies.

One of the main criticisms Ross faced pertained to the commercialization of his art. Ross was known to promote his own line of art supplies, including brushes and paints on his show, and some critics argued that this commercial aspect compromised the purity of his message.

Another source of controversy revolved around the simplicity of his art. Some traditional art critics were dismissive of Ross’s work and claimed that his technique oversimplified the creative process and did not meet the standards of “fine art” – whatever that means. They argued that his style lacked complexity and depth, which were common criticisms lobbed at wet-on-wet painters.

Despite these issues, the overwhelming sentiment towards Bob Ross remains one of admiration and appreciation. His ability to make art accessible to the masses and the tranquility he brought to countless lives far outweigh any controversy.

Eternal Beauty

Liquid sun laps like the waves on a beach over a meadow of lupine and paintbrush in Mount Rainier National Park. Low banks of fog move through the valleys beneath the torn peaks of a dark mountain ridge, its snowy crags warmed by the embers of a dusky sky. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50.

Bob Ross's Enduring Influence on Art and Pop Culture

Bob Ross democratized the art world. His approach to painting made art more approachable to people from all walks of life. He broke down barriers that often deterred people from pursuing their artistic inclinations. His signature techniques and soothing instructional style helped even young children to pick up a brush and create alongside him.

For these and other reasons, Ross’s impact on pop culture is undeniable. His fluffy afro, gentle voice, and amiable catchphrases have become enduring cultural references. His likeness, often portrayed with a palette in hand and an easel behind him, has been celebrated in innumerable parodies, tributes, and memes.

Bob Ross’s enduring influence on art and popular culture speaks to the universal appeal of his message. He wanted to remind us that creativity, positivity, and the joy of creating art are not bound by time or place. Bob Ross’s positive philosophy which emphasized that anyone could be an artist and that there were no mistakes in art continues to inspire people of all ages.

This legacy lives on through his artwork, television show, and a passionate community of artists and fans who appreciate his message of joy, his celebration of creativity, and the therapeutic power of painting.

We Should All Be Like Bob's Happy Little Trees

The enduring legacy of Bob Ross and his paintings is evidence of the enduring power of his art and his uniquely uplifting approach. Ross’s ability to transcend generations and continue to inspire individuals is a testament to his unwavering passion for painting and his message of positivity. His art, depicting gentle landscapes and tranquil scenes, serves as a timeless source of comfort and inspiration in an often chaotic world.

Ross’s approachable and encouraging style has also left a lasting mark on the art world, reminding us that artistic expression is not reserved for so-called professionals. Rather, art is a universal language that allows human beings to connect with the beauty of the world and the beauty within each other – to find joy in the act of imagination and creation.

In these uncertain times, we can look to Bob Ross as a symbol of serenity and resilience, embodying the idea that, like his “happy little trees,” we too can grow, thrive, and bring beauty to the world through our creativity. His legacy invites us to embrace the simplicity, beauty, and enduring joy of art and reminds us that there are no mistakes in our artistic journey – only opportunities for growth and self-expression.

First Light

Autumn layers cascade down the mountainsides and through the hills rejoicing with the colors of autumn near Ridgway, Colorado. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50.


A corridor of mottled maples shelters a quiet country road beneath a vault of emerald green. A breath of gentle mist drifts across the road, changing the old hollowly into a portal to another world. Fine Art Limited Edition of 100.

Walking With Giants

A rhododendron in bloom spreads its pink blossoms towards the veiled sunlight in the forests of far northern California. Through the diaphanous mist, a grove of coast redwoods stands guard over the lush and fecund gardens of undergrowth. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50.

Posted in Art History.