The Cult TV Club: The Joy Of Painting With Bob Ross

Waking up very early in a stuffy Berlin hotel room a few years ago, I flicked on the TV and came across an amiable-looking guy doing some painting in an extremely quiet, small, uncluttered set, with just an easel and palette for company.

He talked through his technical processes almost in a whisper, with a pleasingly down-home manner and vocabulary. He seemed a gentle, kind soul, not dissimilar to Fred Rogers. I was an immediate fan. This guy was obviously a superb painter, and a knowledgeable and engaging host to boot.

What have been your lockdown TV favourites? Alongside reruns of ‘Cheers’, ‘Columbo’ and 1980s snooker and football classics, you can put me down for Bob Ross’s ‘The Joy Of Painting’. With America currently catching hell, the show feels like it’s beamed in from a completely different world. When Larry Owens’ Earl Klugh-meets-Dave-Valentin theme music kicks in, Bob o’clock is always Happy Time.

‘The Joy Of Painting’ ran between 1983 and 1994 on PBS, mostly out of Muncie, Indiana (shades of ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’!). It featured Bob doing a superb wet-on-wet painting in real time for just under 30 minutes, with seemingly little or no editing.

He made it look very easy, but what he didn’t tell you is: a) he’d done his 10,000 hours and then some, and b) to paint like this you’ve got to learn how to study nature. For hours.

But when’s a painting finished anyway? You may sometimes be shouting ‘Stop!’ at the screen, wondering if Bob has over-egged the pudding, but he never has, and the final result occasionally looks pleasingly like something Mati Klarwein (see right) might have concocted.

Just the sound of Bob’s voice can soothe the weariest of souls, and then there are those recurring phrases: ‘Happy little clouds/trees/bushes… Like so… Titanium white… Shoot… Look at that… No mistakes… Son-of-a-gun… Beat the hell out of it… God bless… Easy as that… Load the brush… Let’s have some fun… Just drop it in…‘ You could easily just podcast the audio – people probably already do.

But what about Bob? He spent his young life as a master sergeant in the US Air Force, based in Alaska. According to legend, after years of being a ‘mean’ guy getting people to do things they didn’t want to do, when he left the military he made a vow never to raise his voice again. Many of his paintings are reportedly held by the Smithsonian Museum, and there are classes all over the world that can help you learn the Bob painting method. He died in 1995.

And it turns out that there’s been somewhat of a Bob cult building up recently. Teenagers are discovering ‘The Joy Of Painting’ and there was even a recent BBC radio programme about the mental-health benefits of watching the show. Makes perfect sense to me. I’ll miss his happy little shows when the current season on BBC Four ends, but you can always catch them all on YouTube.