Bob Ross: How an Hobby Artist Becomes a Global Sensation

"Talent is just pursued interest." - Bob Ross

1960, Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. New recruit, 17-year-old Airman Robert Ross, struggles to fit in. He hates being yelled at by his superiors to clean the latrine, make his bed, and always turn up on time.

Has he messed up at the first hurdle with the wrong career choice?

Ross escapes the stress by picking up a paint brush. He spends every free moment he can get at the local art college, learning all the traditional painting techniques. The snow and mountains of the Alaskan landscape inspire his artwork.

The Late Night TV Epiphany

Ross has one problem: he’s pressed for time, and he wishes he could paint more. But the trouble with oils – his preferred paint – is that you must wait hours for each new layer of paint to dry before continuing your work.

Art supplies are expensive, and Air Force wages only go so far. In the evenings, Ross takes to moonlighting as a bartender. Of course, this further squeezes his free time. It’s also a decision will turn his life upside down.

On a slow night at the bar, Ross finds himself watching the bar TV. An art show comes on, which perks his interest.

The show is The Magic World of Oil Painting with German painter Bill Alexander. Ross immediately realizes that what he sees on this show will transform his approach to painting.

Alexander uses oils, Ross’s favorite medium. But he doesn’t wait for one layer to dry before applying the next. So Alexander can paint a whole landscape in a singe 30-minute TV show.

Alexander’s technique is called wet-on-wet. Using this technique, Alexander creates beautiful landscapes at high speed.

Becoming a Disciple

Ross realizes he’s found his life’s calling. He makes contact with Alexander, who agrees to take Ross on as a student. Ross absorbs everything he’s learned from Alexander, and uses it as a starting point to develop his own techniques. Pretty soon, Ross notices he’s making more money selling his paintings than from his job in the Air Force.

With that realization, Ross quits the Air Force to paint full time. Following this decision, he drops the tough-guy persona he’d picked up in the Air Force, and vows “never to scream again.”

From Artist to TV Star

1981. Ross starts a tour of the United States to teach his unique approach to painting. A business executive takes one of Ross’s classes, and is captivated by his charming painting style, and his personal charisma. She manages to land Ross a TV audition.

By 1982, Ross is on TV, teaching his wet-on-wet technique to millions of viewers.

To this day, Bob Ross’s Joy of Painting is carried by hundreds of public television channels across the United States and around the world. Aspiring artists in countries all across the globe continue to be inspired by Ross’s passion for painting.

Action Summary:

  • Unsure where to start in looking for your passion? Start where you are today. Look everywhere for inspiration – even late night TV.
  • No one can be completely original. Find the things you love and plunge yourself into them to make them your own.
  • Find the master of what you want to do, and make yourself their disciple. Learn everything you can from them.