Public admiration for Bob Ross, the television painter known for his dulcet tones, positive attitude and one-of-a-kind look, has permeated nearly every corner of pop culture in recent years, as evidenced by the availability of Bob Ross-inspired chia pets, Halloween costumes and even a comedy starring Owen Wilson. Now, admiration for the curly-haired artist’s work is translating into big-time art market money—$9.85 million, to be exact.
That’s the price tag for the artist’s landscape A Walk in the Woods, the very first painting created by Ross during the 1983 premiere of his show The Joy of Painting. Throughout the instructional show’s more than 400 episodes, he took viewers on step-by-step painting journeys with scenic mountains, forests and lakes, complete with “happy little trees” and “happy little clouds.”
Offered by Minneapolis-based gallery Modern Artifact, the landscape is signed by Ross and authenticated by his eponymous company. “It’s a truly irreplicable, one-of-a-kind painting,” said Ryan Nelson, owner of Modern Artifact, in a statement, adding that while the gallery is “accepting offers to purchase A Walk in the Woods, they would prefer to share it with a museum or traveling exhibit to allow as many people as possible to view such an exciting work of art.” The gallery acquired the work last year from a former volunteer at the PBS station that filmed Ross’s show who purchased the work during a fundraising auction held to support the station.
Why are Bob Ross paintings so hard to find?
Despite the continued popularity of his decades-old lessons, Bob Ross works usually command just thousands of dollars, not millions. But in addition to the landscape’s historical significance, A Walk in the Woods‘ high price tag comes down to the lack of authenticated Ross pieces available on the market. The majority of the more than 1,000 paintings created by the artist during The Joy of Painting (three for each episode, with only one painted on camera) are owned by his company Bob Ross Inc. Besides donating a few pieces to the Smithsonian and lending others out to galleries, the company keeps most of the landscapes in a Virginia office building. It does not offer them up for sale.
Even Modern Artifact, which claims to have bought and sold more Bob Ross paintings than anyone else, resorts to placing wanted ads in local newspapers serving areas where Ross formerly resided in an attempt to locate works. He was a prodigious artist and produced, by some estimates, 30,000 paintings in his lifetime, so beyond the PBS landscapes, there are pieces to be acquired. “The appeal of Bob Ross has extended far beyond the traditional art market and into the world of pop culture,” said Nelson, adding that his enduring popularity is especially impressive “considering that there is virtually no official marketing and his original paintings are nearly impossible to find.”
Despite his prodigious output and the cult following that built up around him, Ross found painting late in his career. A Florida native and high school dropout, he moved to Alaska after joining the Air Force, where he spent two decades as a drill sergeant, earning the nickname “Bust ’em up Bobby” for his strict disciplinary style. “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. The job requires you to be a mean, tough person,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1990. “I promised myself that if I ever got away from it, I wasn’t going to be that way anymore.”
While in Alaska, Ross began selling local landscape scenes on gold mining pans to local tourist shops. When his side hustle began bringing in more money than his Air Force career, he decided to pursue artwork and trained under Bill Alexander, another television painter who helped Ross land his own show. Thanks in part to Ross’ soothing voice and his signature round afro, The Joy of Painting was a hit.
The hair was actually a perm, something Ross tried out to save money on haircuts, and according to some accounts, he didn’t particularly like the look. But after his curly locks became associated with the show, he was forced to stick with it. “He could never, ever, ever change his hair, and he was so mad about that,” Annette Kowalski, Ross’s business partner, told NPR in 2016.
As he found success, Ross took to driving a vintage Corvette with a “BOB ROSS” vanity plate and turned his backyard into an animal rehab center, where he worked with injured squirrels and birds. His love for small creatures found its way onto his television show, which occasionally featured baby animals ranging from deer to raccoons.
During its 11-year tenure, cut short by Ross’s death in 1995, The Joy of Painting attracted 80 million global viewers, while episodes posted to YouTube over the past decade have racked up 610 million views. But Ross’s paintings, which took only 30 minutes per work, were only part of the charm. Many people still tune in because of Ross’ famously folksy optimism.
“I can’t think of anything more rewarding than being able to express yourself to others through painting,” said Ross on one of the episodes of his well-loved show. “Exercising the imagination, experimenting with talents, being creative; these things, to me, are the windows to your soul.”