In a housebound world choked with virtual how-to’s — Bake sourdough! Do yoga! Write the great American novel! Overthrow capitalism! — you might be loath to add another to the list. But trust me, Bob Ross is different. Sure, “The Joy of Painting,” the big-haired drill-sergeant-turned-hobby-artist’s instructional TV series, which ran from 1983-94 on PBS, may look like another quarantine self-improvement project. It’s not. Or at least it doesn’t need to be. Sure, you can paint along with him, scrabbling happy little skies and trees if your artistic ambitions fall somewhere between hardware store calendar and the kind of thing you see on the side of a van. (Sorry, Bob.) It’s better, really, just to watch.
“The Joy of Painting” was resurrected on Netflix a few years ago, but it feels prime for the moment. Every 27 minutes produces a painting, start to finish, right before your eyes. Ross’s endearing nervous energy means he never stops talking, talking, talking, about the painting and everything else. “I didn’t realize how much I said ‘maybe’ until a little 10-year-old boy started mocking me — ‘maybe, maybe, maybe,’ ” he once said, still smiling, while adding highlights to a purple seascape at dusk. And it’s true: He does say “maybe” a lot — “maybe some more orange here” or “maybe some titanium white, maybe, to make it glow." He also says things like “put some excitement in your day” as he adds a dash of bright color. Or “let’s make some nice little clouds that float around and have fun all day.” Because for Ross, every stroke of the brush is a new opportunity for revelation and joy. And we haven’t even gotten to the baby squirrels yet.
That’s right — baby squirrels. If you watch enough “The Joy of Painting” episodes, you’ll get to know them — the squirrels were found abandoned in Ross’s yard, so young their eyes were still shut. They appear when he needs to step off camera. “But don’t worry,” he assures you, “I won’t do anything I don’t tell you about.” And so, as Ross cleans his brushes — he’s always cleaning his brushes, or worrying about cleaning his brushes, or talking about worrying about cleaning his brushes — the camera cuts to three tiny squirrels clasped in a single hand. Another hand raises a tiny syringe to their mouths, and they lap greedily away. “They get so excited,” Ross intones. “It just makes their whole day.”
When we cut back to Ross, he’s there with a broken promise. “I put in a few little clouds while you were watching the squirrels,” he admits. But it’s OK. Because everything in Bob Ross’s world, a sealed capsule of uncomplicated wonder, is OK. It’s better than OK. It is serenity itself.
Well of course it is, you might think. What does Bob Ross have to worry about? He paints and mothers orphaned squirrels. Ah, but know that Ross journeyed long to get here. He enlisted in the Army at 18, rising through the ranks to become a drill sergeant so terrifying he earned the nickname “Bust 'em up Bobby.” Then Ross had a come-to-Jesus moment; a bellowing bully, he realized, was not his best self. He left the Army, vowing never again to raise his voice. Somewhere along the way, he took up painting as therapy. It worked, and he wanted to share it.
There are some things that Ross didn’t share. Specifically, the cancer that stalked him during the show’s last couple of seasons, to which he succumbed in 1995 — not a year after leaving the airwaves, finally unable to continue. So Bob Ross knew something about smiling through pain, about fighting to the last with positivity and poise.
That’s not the only reason it’s impossible to feel bad while watching Bob Ross. He lives nowhere but in this very moment: stroke by stroke, one at a time, making lemonade from lemons. “We don’t make mistakes,” he once said. “We just have happy accidents.” Words to live by.