The Happy Gospel Of Bob Ross And His 3,549 Disciples

Bob Ross died two decades ago, but his legacy lives on through Twitch and thousands of Bob Ross-Certified protégés

(Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso/Vocativ)
Nov 13, 2015 at 9:15 AM ET

The Bob Ross Renaissance is in effect. Two decades after his death, America’s most permanent and perfectly permed source of artistic inspiration is still working happy miracles. Last week, 5.6 million unique viewers tuned in to watch a live stream of every episode of “The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross” on the gaming video platform, Twitch. At its peak, 183,000 viewers were watching simultaneously. Throughout nine days of constant streaming, 7.6 million cheerful messages were exchanged, a happy waterfall gurgling down the right of the screen. One Twitch employee ran a sentiment analysis and found the chats were “off-the-charts happy.

Bear in mind, Twitch.TV is on the internet. More specifically it’s on gamer-dominated internet, a land overpopulated by trolls and often teeming with negativity. Getting millions of users to happily champion a stream of pure joy is more difficult than combing out a perm with a paint brush.

As the marathon run of 403 episodes came to an end, the joy yielded to mourning. Thousands on Twitch and Twitter campaigned to #KEEPBOB. The cry was heard, and Twitch is now streaming a season of the show every Monday. There are also plans to create brand new Bob Ross content based on the teachings of some of the 3,549 painters who are trained in the Bob Ross method.

The Bob Ross Phenomenon

Ross’ popularity is nothing new. His signature Valium-butter voice and lumberjack-moonlighting-as-a-clown look have been enjoyed in earnest and irony since he first hit public-access airwaves in 1983. At the peak of his fame, “The Joy of Painting” aired on 277 stations, including a promotional spot for MTV. The show has remained on the air continuously since his death in 1995 and now runs every week on a whopping 453 channels across 45 states. His fan-run Twitter account has 66,000 followers and his most popular videos on YouTube have more than a million views. A remixed Bob Ross music video produced by PBS has more than 9 million views and an Epic Rap Battle between Ross and Picasso has more than 26 million views.

But never has a community of fans coalesced around the spirit of Ross like they did during the Twitch marathon, which was streamed in part to bring attention to Twitch’s new Creative channel. The video platform, bought by Amazon in 2014 for almost a billion dollars, has been home almost exclusively to gaming content. Twitch Creative is a new category for videos from artists and and makers.

“Many of our broadcasting community have cited Bob Ross as an influence,” said Bill Moorier, employee number two at Twitch, and now head of Twitch Creative. “It’s also worth noting that Bob Ross pioneered the entire idea of creating art in real time. While showing his passion for painting, he would talk viewers through the process and interact with them as if they were in the studio with him.”

It’s easy to see how many of the users are influenced by Ross’ format. Roboticists, woodworkers, painters—nearly all of them are talking viewers through their process with childlike enthusiasm for the creative process.

Just as with gamers, Twitch Creative users can use a picture-in-picture feature to film themselves as they paint along with the series, bringing new life to Ross’ art. But this is just a digital version of what hundreds of thousands of Ross’ followers already do in real life. Painting along with Bob has been a thing for three decades, and Bob’s disciples have spread his gospel across the globe.

The Bob Ross Disciples

“Leave some light spots in the sky to put your happy little clouds in,” Mickey Cline says to her six students at the Hobby Lobby in Hixon, Tennessee, on November 11. It was Cline’s first class after joining the ranks of 3,549 artists across the world who are Certified Ross Instructors (excluding some who requested to remain annonymous). She wore her “Happy Little Tree” Bob Ross socks and a blue T-shirt with Ross’ head emblazoned across the front and prepared to spread the word.

For four of Cline’s students, she replaces their former instructor Bea Cox, who was something of a Bob Ross legend until her death in June. “I’ll never be as good as Bea. She studied at the feet of Bob. She taught with him in Great Britain and Japan. She went all over the world with him. Her speciality was wildlife. These gals really grieved over her and they put their paints down and didn’t touch them until they saw our advertisement in Hobby Lobby,” Cline said.

Cline waited 11 years to get her Bob Ross Certification. She started painting in 2004, when her son gave her a $100 Bob Ross Master Kit. After seven years of painting, her teacher urged her to take the Bob Ross Certification class in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, the only location where U.S. citizens can be certified. She enrolled with her husband in 2011, but then cancelled. They enrolled again for December 2013, but before they could put brush to canvas, her husband died of skin cancer.

“He really wanted me to do that class and he knew I was in a high-stressed position at work,” Cline said. “He wanted me to have it to fall back on—something I would enjoy. It is like work but it’s not. It makes me happy to see other people learn that they can do this.”

Two years later, she fulfilled her husband’s wish and got certified to teach. In September, Cline traveled to New Smyrna Beach and spent three weeks learning how to paint and teach landscapes like Bob Ross from teacher-trainer Doug Hallgren.

Hallgren is one of six teacher-trainers, the chosen few who have the power to grant three types of instructor certifications on behalf of Bob Ross Inc.: Floral, Wildlife and Landscape.

Hallgren started painting when he happened across a Bob Ross instructional book at a mall. He bought the Bob Ross kit at Michaels Arts & Crafts and eventually started teaching at the store. When he donated one of his works for an auction raising money for PBS, he caught the attention of Bob Ross Inc. and they extended a job offer. After 20 years as flight attendant, Hallgren quit the skies and moved to Florida. “It was one of those things that come up that’s not going to come up again ever in a lifetime,” Hallgren said. “One of the first classes that I certified, when it came time to hand out the certificates, I just broke down bawling because I was so proud.”

Artists travel from around the globe (Bob Ross instructors hail from 39 countries) to meet Hallgren and his fellow teachers and learn the Bob Ross way. They huddle in an unassuming workshop, sandwiched between a sushi cafe and a Chinese restaurant, where a 28 x 40’’ photograph of Ross with his pet squirrel, Peapod, watches over the artists. There, they spend eight hours every day recreating his works. The classes cost $395, but materials and lodging put the final price tag around $10,000.

“It’s pretty intensive,” Hallgren said. “People find it a little more exhausting than they might expect. You kind of have a movie version of how people paint—with a beret and a couple flicks of the brush, you’ve got a masterpiece. Well, it’s really not like that. There’s a lot of mechanics, a lot of materials, and honestly a lot of sweat that goes into it.”

Despite years of preparation, Mickey Cline still struggled. “It’s three weeks of grueling training,” Cline said. “You make 26 or 27 paintings. It’s pretty fast-paced and pretty hard. If you are not paying attention, you get lost. At the end of three weeks, we were pretty tired. But we were ready to do it again.”

And she will do it again. Cline has already signed up to receive the floral certification in January and the wildlife certification in July. When she’s done, she will have spent nine weeks learning to paint like Bob Ross, and dropped enough money to pay for a semester at college.

Queen of the Bob Ross Empire

None of this would have been possible without Annette Kowalski, however. Kowalski is the reason Bob Ross ended up on television, and can take credit for the phenomenon and the art empire he spawned.

Back in 1982, the death of Kowalski’s son put her into a deep spiral of sadness. She had lost interest in everything besides PBS television painter Bill Alexander, but Alexander no longer taught classes. He had passed the brush, along with his signature wet-on-wet painting method, to a protégé and set his easel aside. Annette’s husband insisted it would cheer her up to learn from the interloper, but she resisted attending a class hosted by a comparative no-namer. That no-namer’s name was Bob Ross.

“When I went into that classroom the first day I was absolutely mesmerized by Bob, just as people are today. I wasn’t nearly as interested in painting what he was teaching as just watching him,” Kowalski said. “I was more interested in following him around the room interacting with people. I’m not sure I even painted a painting that week.”

Kowalski convinced Ross to travel from Clearwater, Florida, to their hometown of Washington, D.C., to teach what ended up being an ill-attended class. Disappointed, Annette and her husband tried to stir up publicity by creating a commercial to run on the Phil Donahue show. When they brought it to a local PBS station to have it properly formatted, the station manager was so impressed he offered Ross a series. The rest was public broadcasting history.

As Ross’ longtime business partner, Kowalski retained rights to Bob Ross Inc. after his death. The company of about a half dozen is fueled by how-to books, videos, art supplies certifications and licensing. Though semi-retired, Kowalski continues to select and oversee the teacher-trainers who will continue the legacy by training new instructors.

“These paintings were beautiful. We could take pictures but I didn’t post any of those on Facebook, because to me that was a sacred place.” — Mickey Cline

Many of them return every two years for the Bob Ross Instructors Reunion. The most recent reunion took place over six days in October. About 200 instructors and Ross friends and fans came from as far afield as Taiwan to celebrate what would have been Ross’ 72nd birthday. “It’s just nothing but happiness and delight,” said Kowalski.

For Cline, who got her certification just in time to attend, it was spiritual. “At one point we stopped at the Chantilly, Virginia, office,” Cline said. “This hall was lined two paintings deep with Bob Ross paintings. He donated a lot of his paintings to PBS for fundraisers. These paintings were beautiful. We could take pictures but I didn’t post any of those on Facebook, because to me that was a sacred place.” Cline and the other instructors also took classes from instructors who learned directly from Ross. “They sat at his feet and learned from Bob himself,” Cline said.

Painting The Bob Ross Future

Bob Ross Inc. sees the Twitch moment as a Bob Ross renaissance. “Twitch.TV woke up the world. They made everybody remember their childhood again even though we’ve always been here,” said Joan Kowalski, media director and Annette’s daughter. The publicity has blown their minds. “We are freakin’ out. It’s amazing what’s going on.”

Bob Ross Inc. shares the rights to “The Joy of Painting” with Janson Media, which is largely responsible for getting Bob Ross in front of cord-cutters.

“We work with all the major digital platforms. We placed it on Amazon, we presented it to Hulu and they put it up on their platform,” said Jesse Janson, director of acquisitions and digital media for Janson Media. “But no one outside of Twitch brought a creative, unique partnership to us.”

Janson was so pleased with the Twitch community’s response and Twitch’s handling of “The Joy of Painting,” that they’ve decided to run mini-marathons every Monday and produce more Bob Ross content.

How do you film more videos about a man who dipped his final brush in 1995? By tapping into a global network of 3,549 artists trained in and dedicated to the Bob Ross method.

“Bob Ross Inc. does a ‘Joy of Painting’ course. We want to make use of the [Twitch] channel for that and shoot some of those classes and stream them on the channel for users to get a feel for how those courses are taught,” Janson said. “We just have to communicate with the teachers and figure out how best to roll it out… It’s totally green-lit. Bob Ross Inc. is on board with it. Twitch is on board with it. We just have to get the logistics down right. I would say we would start doing that in early 2016.” 

Ross’ paintings never made it into a museum. He never wanted them to either, which is why he donated nearly all of them. “Bob never pretended that his paintings were good,” Kowalski said. “He used to laugh with his students and tell them, this is never going to hang in an art gallery and you can cry about that all the way to the bank.”

And yet, Ross is proving himself as arguably one of the most influential artists of our time. It’s surprising even to Ross’ longest friend and greatest fan. “I really, really don’t know what’s caused this,” Kowalski said. “It might be because of the internet.”