People who recognize Bob Ross from his PBS television show “The Joy of Painting” may be shocked to find that he was a veteran of the U.S. Air Force.
In fact, Ross retired after 20 years of military service and reaching the rank of Master Sergeant.
So, how did Ross go from an Air Force career to a programming staple of public television with a gentle approach as a painting instructor for millions of viewers?
Here are 6 things you never knew about Bob Ross’s military career.
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Table of Contents
1. Ross Enlisted In 1961
Robert Norman Ross was born in Daytona, Florida, in 1942 and raised in Orlando.
Ross dropped out of high school after just one year.
He spent some time working with his father, who was a carpenter.
Then Ross decided to enlist in the U.S. Air Force in 1961.
Initially, he worked a desk job as a medical records technician.
Ross remained stationed in Florida until 1963.
Then, he was transferred to Eielson Air Force Base outside of Fairbanks, Alaska.
2. Ross’s Service In Alaska Led Him To Painting
Ross’s Air Force service while stationed in Alaska led to his first painting lesson.
He took a beginning class at a U.S.O. (United Service Organizations) club in Anchorage.
Though Ross was vocal about his dislike for being taught to paint in an abstract style for his initial lessons, he wasn’t deterred.
Instead, he focused on the “direct painting” style of his mentor, William “Bill” Alexander.
This is also called wet-on-wet oil painting in which the artist paints directly on top of wet paint without allowing the layer below to dry.
Ross continued to take painting classes and he spent much of his time doing this activity when out of uniform.
As he grew to love painting and becoming an artist, Ross was also impressed by the beautiful mountain scenery of Alaska.
Even after retiring from the Air Force, Ross often painted Alaskan settings and landscapes.
3. Ross Balanced His Time Between Air Force Duties And Painting
While Bob Ross moved up in rank at Eielson Air Force Base, he also worked shifts as a bartender off-base at a tavern.
At his second job, he sold landscapes that he painted on the bottoms of gold-panning tins to tourists for $25 each.
In addition to his Air Force duties, Ross continued working on his painting methods.
He eventually focused on canvases and oil painting.
This dedication allowed him to finish one to two paintings on his lunch breaks.
Ross felt that painting was an escape for him when he wasn’t on duty.
Therefore, he decided that he would pursue a career in art after his service in the Air Force.
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4. Ross Had A 20-Year Military Career
Bob Ross served in the Air Force from 1961 to 1981, when he retired.
Ross spent time as a drill sergeant and basic training instructor, first sergeant of the clinic at Eielson AFB, and eventually achieved the rank of Master Sergeant.
In these military leadership positions, Ross found that the need to be harsh and yell at other airmen, while effective in the Air Force, made him personally unhappy.
However, this experience influenced Ross such that he was aware of how he used his voice and its impact.
Once retired from the military, Ross decided to refrain from yelling or raising his voice in his next profession.
This was a large part of his appealing and calming nature on television.
By 1981, Ross’s earnings from selling his paintings had outgrown his Air Force salary.
This allowed him to make the decision to retire from military service and pursue another career before he even turned 40.
5. Ross’s Paintings Reflect His Military Background
Ross’s military background is present in his painting in several ways.
Not only did he learn to paint while in the Air Force, but his military discipline and work ethic allowed him to accomplish an incredible amount of artistic work while on active duty and after retirement.
In addition, being stationed in Alaska influenced Ross’s love for painting landscapes, which made up most of his artistic subject matter.
Many episodes of “The Joy of Painting” feature Ross’s trademark style of creating works with mountains and trees.
This was the scenery that he loved and appreciated during his military service in Alaska.
6. Life After Retirement From The Air Force
When Bob Ross retired from the Air Force in 1981, he became a traveling art instructor and then developed his own classes.
He was eventually given his own show on public television in 1983 from Muncie, Indiana’s PBS affiliate.
Ross’s show, “The Joy of Painting,” showed him painting one canvas per episode.
For thirty minutes, he would give calm demonstrations and relaxed instructions for the viewers.
This show lasted for 11 years on PBS, ending in 1994.
During his “public” life as a television host, Ross guarded his personal privacy carefully and rarely gave interviews.
However, here are some fascinating facts about Ross’s transition from an Air Force member to host of “The Joy of Painting”:
- He did every episode for free
- His income was generated by teaching painting and selling art supplies through Bob Ross Inc
- Each 13-episode season was completed in a total of two days on the set
- His iconic permed hair is something Ross hated, but he kept it since it became so recognizable
- Over the course of his PBS show, Ross created more than 1,100 paintings—1,000 of which were landscapes
- Three exact copies were created of each painting featured in his show
- Ross never personally sold any of these copies, either sending them to charities or allowing them to be kept by PBS.
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Legacy Of Bob Ross
Bob Ross died in 1995 from complications of lymphoma in Orlando, Florida.
It’s estimated that he created between 25,000 and 30,000 paintings over his lifetime.
Though Ross didn’t live to see the prolific influence of the internet, his likeness, voice, and art make up a significant part of internet culture to this day.
People can find his shows on YouTube and other platforms as well as Bob Ross merchandise and a variety of memes made with love.
Overall, Bob Ross’s legacy continues as he is remembered for his service to his country in many ways: as a military leader, positive television personality, and artist who inspired millions of others.
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