Having a bad day? Maybe you need a little Bob Ross.
Amid the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, the “happy trees” painter with the soothing voice and gentle persona is making a comeback decades after his PBS series “The Joy of Painting” ended. If you’re not seeing that fuzzy, smiling face on Netflix, then you’ve seen it on T-shirts, mugs, coloring books and Afro-growing Chia Pets.
We needed him then — back when America was recovering from Vietnam and Watergate — just like we need him now. This is the age of anxiety. Some quiet and kindness would do us good. As would some painting. It’s no wonder Ross has returned.
It’s hard to make friends when a pandemic keeps you inside. And yet, everyone who turns on Ross’ show quickly makes a new best friend.
“Hi, there,” he often starts with that hushed voice, chuckling, as if bashful or surprised, as if he weren’t expecting us and is excited to see us. “Ready to do a painting with me?”
These days I am always ready to do a painting with him. But I don’t paint, and I’d venture to guess that the majority of viewers didn’t paint along with him before, and still don’t today.
Which probably would have made Ross, who died in 1995, sad. After all, his stated purpose with “The Joy of Painting” was to introduce people to the pleasure of something he considered very simple.
“We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents,” he famously assured viewers.
It should all be happy, he said. Happy like his “happy little trees,” those evergreens he’d bring to life with the flick of his brush. Happy like his “happy little clouds,” which he’d dabble and whisk across his multicolored skies.
Everything happy. “That’s why I paint,” Ross explained during one episode. “It’s because I can create the kind of world that I want, and I can make this world as happy as I want it.”
Pft, pft, pft, goes his dancing brush. “Let it float,” he whispers. “Juuust let it float.”
Pft, pft, pft. “Juuust beautiful,” Ross whispers. “Juuust beautiful.”
And then he mixes some white and blue and strokes his brush downward, creating a waterfall.
“Now we have water that’s just coming along and falling right over there,” he whispers. “Just having a fantastic day.”
And pretty soon, we’re having fantastic day, too.
In the documentary “The Happy Painter,” actress and artist Jane Seymour reflected on Ross’ show. “You just got swept into this magical world,” she said, “where you’re taken into a fantasy reality. It’s his, but it becomes your own.”
Before launching the show, Ross spent 20 years in the Air Force, rising to the rank of master sergeant.
“I was the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1990. “The job requires you to be a mean, tough person. ... I promised myself that if I ever got away from it, it wasn’t going to be that way anymore.”
He took on the opposite persona on his TV show, re-creating the peaceful landscapes that inspired him while stationed in Alaska. His orders were not barked but instead whispered, suggested.
And sometimes the suggestions had nothing to do with painting. As he paints the waterfall, he whispers: “Just let go and fall like a waterfall.”