Happy Little Trees

Happy Little Trees

The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross

Words by Christine Van Dyk

The spirit of Bob Ross is alive and well in a strip mall in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. There’s no neon sign or billboard to let you know it’s there—just his name on the door of a shop that sits behind a Twistee Treat. But for devotees of the quirky, soft-spoken painter, studios like this are ground zero for discovering The Joy of Painting. 

You may remember “happy little trees” and “happy little clouds”—off-beat sayings Bob was only slightly-less known for than his iconic afro. Over the course of 400 television episodes, he completed 30,000 paintings, all while doling out his homespun wisdom and cheerful encouragement. Today Bob remains a cultural phenomenon whose image appears on everything from board games to toasters and boxer shorts. He’s even an answer in the Trivial Pursuit game.

Bob was raised in Daytona Beach, Florida, not far from that strip mall. After school he enrolled in the Air Force and found himself in Alaska where he learned to paint in a U.S.O. Club.

“Alaska had such an impact on him,” Joan Kowalski, president of Bob Ross, Inc., said. “He was this barefoot Florida boy who’d never seen snow. He was shocked by its beauty and profoundly changed by how incredible nature can be from one place to another.”

Part of Bob’s appeal involved a painting technique known as alla prima, or wet-on-wet, which allowed him to create a painting in just 26 minutes—a technique necessary for his television career.

“It was invaluable to complete the work so quickly,” Joan said. “Not only did it allow Bob to finish a painting in a single episode, it also meant people just learning to paint could pick up a brush and see success right away.”

But the technique was only part of the allure; the rest was all Bob.

“My mother took one of his first classes,” Joan said. “She saw immediately there was more to the experience than paints and brushes. Bob was integral to the experience.”

That intrinsic “it” factor came from his soft-spoken manner, funny euphemisms, and an iconic hairstyle—all of which led to a successful syndicated Public Television show: The Joy of Painting.

“We filmed in an old house in Muncie, Indiana,”Jim Needham, former General Manager of WIPB-TV, said. “The studio was only 14 feet wide by 26 feet long. We hung black curtains to keep the focus on Bob and tossed black sheets on the floor because he splattered paint everywhere.”

It was a laid-back affair. Bob wore casual long-sleeve shirts with jeans and his hair was always permed. When taping, the crew learned quickly to make sure the hot water in the 1870s kitchen-turned-studio was shut off so viewers didn’t hear the pipes clanging. It was a small operation but interest grew quickly.

“The station was promised a second series if we could get 25 other public television stations to pick up the show,” Jim said. “We got 30. The next time we had 60, and eventually we appeared on 345 of the 360 stations in America.”

People were drawn to the program because Bob made ordinary viewers believe they could create something special.

“Bob claimed he never wanted to do things so difficult, the audience couldn’t do it for themselves,” Jim said.

The Joy of Painting method is still taught by 1,500 instructors across America and the world. Would-be painters join the ranks of celebrities such as David Arquette, Terry Crews, and Ryan Reynolds, who’ve all visited a class.

For 31 seasons The Joy of Painting was the backdrop of an era. According to Joan, “It was the sound of what growing up was like for many of us—the loud scraping of the knife on the palette, the brush tapping the canvas.”

The fourth generation of fans are now jumping on the bandwagon. It’s not unusual to see 20-somethings sporting T-shirts with Bob’s famous phrases: “two hairs and some air” and the familiar “happy little trees.” But just how did Millennials and Gen Z’ers discover Bob? It was thanks to a video game platform called Twitch TV. The channel featured a marathon of his show to promote a new creative platform. Joan recalls it ran nonstop for eight days, and the “world went nuts.” 

Shortly afterward, COVID struck and Bob Ross became the surprise hit of quarantine. 

“People were so anxious and stressed out,” Jim recalled. “BBC Four in London aired The Joy of Painting 24/7 because of Bob’s calming, healing presence.”

Bob Ross passed away in 1995 at just 52, but in many ways he’s still with us. Whenever the world gets tough, you can almost hear his gentle voice telling you not to worry. After all, “a blob of paint in the wrong place is just a happy little accident waiting to be turned into something beautiful.”