The Joy of Watching Bob Ross

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It can be tricky to find something “good” on TV. As a TV reviewer, I know that all too well.

Oh, we can find plenty of riveting, binge-bait shows on Netflix and Amazon and HBO, of course. Viewing television through a secular lens, you could argue that it’s never been better.

But as we talked about on an upcoming podcast (look for it Nov. 19), it’s hard to find shows that are clean and good—shows that the whole family can watch together, like they used to do in the olden times. And even for those of you for whom that sort of problematic content isn’t a deal killer (and who are now, presumably, reading this by accident), let’s be honest: Good shows can be stressful shows. They always end on a cliffhanger. Your favorite characters are always in peril. You never know who might get caught or killed or betrayed. On most of today’s buzz-heavy shows, someone’s bound to get hurt.

Hey, listen, I’m all for creative tension in storytelling. But we’ve just moved past a bitterly contested election. We’re still wearing masks everywhere we go. Man, 2020 has been stressful enough: Do we really need more of it on our screens?

So with all that in mind, let me point you to … Bob Ross.

Some of you might be familiar with the perm-haired PBS painter, known for his “happy little trees” and “happy little clouds.” His The Joy of Painting show was a fixture on PBS from 1983 to 1994 and, though he died in 1995 at the age of 52, he’s become something of a retro cultural icon: A man easy to spoof and love simultaneously. Why, even Deadpool took a stab at his persona (so to speak).

Bob Ross is arguably more popular than ever, with his image now on everything from coffee mugs to ugly sweaters. You can even buy a toaster that tattoos his face on bread. (In the interest of full disclosure, I bought my dad some Bob Ross socks for Christmas. But don’t tell him.)

But there’s a reason why Ross has remained such an enduring, and endearing, figure, now 25 years after his death: He was peaceful, television’s equivalent of a warm blanket and a hot cup of cocoa. His voice alone could drop your blood pressure by a good 20 points.

I’ve read that Ross was once an Air Force drill sergeant. He spent most of his time yelling at people. After he got out of the Air Force, Ross decided that he was tired of yelling at people and got a job where he’d never have to yell again. He started painting while in the military, but didn’t land on PBS until 1983, where he fed viewers a quiet stream of painting techniques, scenic landscapes and gentle inspiration.

“There are no mistakes, only happy accidents,” he’d say. Or, “Mix up a little more shadow color here, then we can put a little shadow right in there. See how you can move things around? You have unlimited power on this canvas. [You] can literally, literally move mountains.”

Ross was apparently a Christian, too. He sometimes talked a bit about God on the show, and often ended it with a pleasant “God bless.”

You’d think that Ross’ The Joy of Painting would’ve long since slipped into obscurity. Nothing about Ross, his paintings or the show itself demanded our attention. But in the anxious days of 2020, when most households are filled with tense kids and stressed-out parents, perhaps there’s a reason why his old show is more popular than ever—and, honestly, more available than ever, too.

The Joy of Painting—all 403 episodes—are now available on YouTube, free of charge. (The episodes are all on Hulu, too, if you’re a subscriber.) If you’re looking for something clean to watch while you’re cuddling up on the couch with your loved ones, few shows could be cleaner. And while none of the episodes have much of a plot other than painting, Ross’s quick brushstrokes combined with his highway-smooth voice makes for an oddly mesmerizing experience.

Must see TV? On one level, no. The Joy of Painting is as far from the riveting tension of today’s most binged shows as you could imagine. But in an age of distress, it just might qualify.

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

15 Responses

  1. – Bob Ross is not an artist. He makes up his pictures. If you took a picture of a group of birch or any landscape for that matter, he could not paint it.

    1. – Original and/or inspired creation, rather than copying, has been validated as true artistry for centuries.

    2. -That depends on what your idea of “art” is. After the Modern Art movement, we tend to say that “good art” is simply what looks like something we could see. But art (as in painting) should have some purpose, some meaning. Just being able to copy a picture isn’t the same as having a message and showing people that message through your art medium.

  2. – Sad , that you don’t know true art !
    It comes from within !
    ***,if we could all make up images from our own mind to paint!
    And Bob Ross Could paint from any image , he preferred to use his own mind !
    Brilliant , he’s painting the trees of heaven !!

  3. – Bob Ross was most definitely an artist. He was able to take a blank canvas and create a vivid scenery within a short period of time. Places that I wish to visit, walk down the paths by a babbling brook or waterfall, or past a cabin in the woods long desserted with beautiful fall trees. Yes, he most certainly was an artist.

  4. It would be marvellous if you left the ‘god/Jesus stuff out of your blog. You are meant to be a film and art critic not an evangelist. Here, from the U.K. {and Europe, } we view the American obsession with Christianity as hilariously parochial as most of us do not subscribe to this faith. Neither do we view your ‘Christian’ life as the ideal way to live and think. You really should make up your mind whether to be a critic or an evangelist and stop with the constant proselytising. It’s irritating and detracts from your credibility as a serious commentator.

    1. -You might not know, but Plugged In is a division of Focus on the Family, a socially conservative evangelical Christian organization. In that sense, the writers are indeed evangelists first and critics second, and they’re writing for an evangelical audience.

      It has nothing to do with an “American obsession with Christianity.” Secular American critics keep it secular. Plugged In is categorically different.

      And by the way, the U.K. is 53.6% Christian, according to Eurobarometer.

      1. -Perfect response! Good job Plugged In, & FOTF…I’m so grateful for media critiques from a Christian perspective.

    2. -Thanks for your comment, Dr. Williams. To clarify, Plugged In exists primarily to help Christian families discern whether a film, TV show, or music release is in keeping with their beliefs and values, not to critique them on their artistic merit. We realize this may be a departure from the traditional view of entertainment criticism, but it is a role that we take seriously and believe has value for families who are seeking this information.

    3. -When you stand, or better stated, kneel before Jesus at your final judgement, He will remind you of this comment…!

  5. -Paul,
    I don’t understand the negative comments above, or the need for some people to get offended when no offense was intended.
    I have felt the same way while watching Bob’s show. Very soothing. And for someone to be upset that he expressed a faith in God while providing a little entertainment and education, well, we should all strive to be witnesses like that.
    It always amazed me that Bob would say “let’s put a tree there”, and a tree appeared.
    We appreciate Focus on the Family, and all the reviews of movies, tv, and music. Keep up the good work, brother.

  6. -Thank you for writing this article. Bob Ross’ show was the closest I could get to a formal painting lesson as a child. Back then, I was the only one in our family who was interested to watch his shows. I am happy to know that he was a Christian and his shows are on YouTube! Woohoo! It’s amazing how I still remember the techniques I learned from his show up to this day, even though I didn’t end up as a painter. God bless you Plugged In!

  7. -My husband and I have been watching Bob Ross to relax plus it helps that I really enjoy painting. He is extremely talented and his voice will completely calm you. It is like meditation or relaxation therapy. He has inspired me to try oil painting as I usually paint acrylic.

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