New Bob Ross documentary looks at artist’s complicated legacy

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

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By all accounts, the late artist Bob Ross was a gentle soul with a love of nature and a genuine ambition to teach Americans to paint “happy little trees” through his long-running TV show “The Joy of Painting.”

Viewers came to adore the soothing cadence of his low voice — akin to the babbling brooks he daubed on his canvases — his permed hair and wardrobe of denim jeans. The Florida-born painter helmed the PBS show from 1983 to 1994 before he died from lymphoma at age 52.

But a new Netflix documentary, “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed,” looks set to upend the notion that Ross’ story was a simple one, teasing a more complex side to his life in the title and trailer.

Steve Ross (left) is one of the primary accounts in the new Netflix documentary.

Steve Ross (left) is one of the primary accounts in the new Netflix documentary. Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

At a time where TV and movie viewers cherish the nice guys — Mr. Rogers, Tom Hanks and the fictional Ted Lasso — while expecting our idols to fall, this kind of reframing can create unease. Ross’ name still carries cultural capital two decades later because of his apparent goodness — epitomized by his message that “we don’t make mistakes; we have happy accidents.” His optimism continued even as he publicly addressed the death of his wife, Jane, on the show, and during his own cancer diagnosis.

“Despite how difficult things got at times, he just had this unbelievable ability to connect with whoever was watching,” said the Netflix documentary’s director, Joshua Rofé, in a phone interview.

By the time Ross died in 1995, he had produced some 30,000 paintings — on-air or during his traveling workshops — depicting idyllic woodlands or alpine scenes cast in tranquil blues or candy-coated pinks. Today, streaming platforms from Netflix to Twitch have given his show a second life.

Beneath the surface

So what could be lurking beneath the surface of Ross’ good-hearted facade? As it turns out, probably nothing that would get the beloved artist canceled. Though Rofé digs into some private areas of Ross’ life — particularly his alleged marital transgressions — the real microscope is on Annette and Walter Kowalski, the painter’s long-time business partners who co-founded Bob Ross Inc. and have been involved in extensive legal battles against Ross’ estate and his family over the rights to the artist’s image.

The documentary’s narrative unfolds through accounts from Ross’ son, Steve, and others close to him. But Rofé said he didn’t know where the story would lead at first.

"The Joy of Painting" aired for a decade, encouraging people to harness their creativity and take risks.

“The Joy of Painting” aired for a decade, encouraging people to harness their creativity and take risks. Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

“We started to reach out to people who knew (Ross), people who worked with him. And two things were coming up every time,” Rofé said. “One was, they all loved him, and they missed him … (but) they were all afraid to speak publicly about Bob out of fear of some sort of legal retaliation or retribution from an entity that they would not name.”

“I really wanted to find out why,” Rofé explained. “And I wanted to understand what was going on in Bob’s life outside of that 30 minutes of the show that was so peaceful and calming to watch.”

‘He was not perfect’

The documentary goes back to the beginning of Ross’ career, when the Kowalskis discovered him demonstrating painting techniques at different malls. They soon partnered with him to bring his techniques to Americans’ living rooms.

Ross wasn’t the first artist to paint on TV. He had in fact studied under Bill Alexander, who had his own PBS show “The Magic of Oil Painting.” Alexander taught Ross the wet-on-wet technique that allowed him to complete a painting in the span of a half-hour television episode (and that, centuries earlier, had enabled the loosely painted lilies of Claude Monet and the shadowy, regal figures of Diego Velasquez).

It is estimated that Ross painted around 30,000 works during his lifetime.

It is estimated that Ross painted around 30,000 works during his lifetime. Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

When “The Joy of Painting” debuted in 1983, it was filmed in the Kowalskis’ home against a black backdrop. Ross taped multiple episodes per day. Over the course of the show, he welcomed regular guests, including his son, coined his “happy little trees” catchphrase, and left viewers with both sensual instructions to “make love” with their brushstrokes and sage advice explaining that being an accomplished painter isn’t an inherent talent, but something gained through practice. (“Trees cover up a multitude of sins,” he also offered)

“He was not perfect; he absolutely had flaws,” Rofé said. But, the director added: “I think that there’s something about this … decency that you get from him. And we’re all really hungry for that. And we’re in need of that.”

Today, amid an abundance of Bob Ross merchandise and nostalgia, Rofé believes the story of his life has been carefully curated by those now in control of his legacy.

“The information that’s out about Bob, for the most part, is very much what’s put forth by Bob Ross Incorporated. They’re essentially the controllers of the Bob Ross name and image,” Rofé said. “Once we finally found people who were willing and brave enough to say their piece, we started to find out so much more.”

Bob Ross Inc., which is now presided over by Annette and Walter Kowalski’s daughter Joan, told Vanity Fair that allegations featured in the documentary are an “attempt to relitigate” matters already dealt with in a 2017 lawsuit. Were it not for the organization, the statement added, Ross’ “artistic and cultural relevance … would have been lost decades ago with his passing.”

Add to queue: Happy little trees

Watch: BobRoss on Twitch
Over 2 million users follow the late artist on Twitch, and each Friday beginning at noon ET, they can watch live-streamed marathons of his programming. While you’re on Twitch, check out other artists who livestream their work, including Drawfee, where the gang draws followers’ requests on the spot, and ipaintbirbs, who makes intricate little portraits of birds.

This book reconsiders the quaint countryside paintings by Kinkade, repositioning the artist, whose work has often been labeled kitsch, as an important influence in contemporary art and one of the most collected artists in the US.

The Art History Babes use their podcast to discuss everything from the history of erotic art to the “bad boys of the Baroque.” In this episode, they get nostalgic over their favorite Bob Ross moments.

Watch: KevinOilPainting on YouTube

If Ross had been a millennial instead of a boomer, he probably would have had a YouTube channel. Now, there are artists like Kevin Hill, who provides tutorials on painting cozy farmhouses and snowy mountains to hundreds of thousands of viewers.

“How often do a deciduous tree and a coniferous tree appear in the same (Bob Ross) painting?” You might never have wondered this yourself, but FiveThirtyEight journalist Walt Hickey analyzed the paintings from all 403 episodes of “The Joy of Painting” to find out.