Seeing The Forest For The Happy Trees: Five Life Lessons I Learned From Watching Bob Ross Paint

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Like so many other people, The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross has long been a beloved respite for me, first as a child sprawled out on the carpet in my pajamas watching PBS and then later as an adult winding down after a stressful day of work. Ross’ soothing cadence, the gentle scrape of his knife on a canvas — it’s both mesmerizing and deeply relaxing to watch him bring a landscape to life in 30 minutes.

But while some of his sayings like “happy accidents” or “happy little trees” are so well-known you can find them on novelty socks, Ross occasionally turned more serious in his monologuing, giving advice that goes beyond the canvas (and can’t fit on a tee shirt).

Here are five valuable life lessons Ross offered while teaching the joy of painting.

Don’t work a job you hate.

“If it doesn’t make you happy, you’re doing the wrong thing. I spent half my life doing a job that I didn’t really want to do. And now I’m doing what I want to do. And now work is fun.”

Before becoming a painter, Ross was enlisted in the United States Air Force. He rose to the rank of master sergeant and served as first sergeant at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, which is when he saw the snow that would inspire so many of his paintings for the first time (Ross was born and raised in Florida).

“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 a rare sit-down interview. “The job requires you to be a mean, tough person. And I was fed up with it. I promised myself that if I ever got away from it, it wasn’t going to be that way any more.”

Ross, his wife, and another investor sank their entire life savings into starting The Joy of Painting and its first year of operation, the business lost $20,000 (over $60,000 in today’s money). The tight budget is supposedly what led to Ross’ famous hairstyle — he figured that with a perm, he wouldn’t need to pay for biweekly trims to maintain his military style crewcut.

Leaving a stable career to become a painter was a big risk — or as Ross might say, “a bravery test.”

And it paid off. Not just in terms of finances, but in what matters more: happiness.

Embrace mistakes.

“Do as many different things as you have the nerve for. Sometimes you learn more from mistakes than you do from trying so hard. The next time you make a mistake, before you get upset about it, look at it. Sometimes mistakes turn out to be our best learning devices.”

Ross stresses throughout his lessons that mistakes, or his famous “happy accidents,” can be transformed into new parts of a painting — an accidental tap of the canvas becomes a flock of birds, trees that grow too big become reflections in a lake, a slip of the brush gives a stream a waterfall.

The errors neither faze him nor slow him down. In painting, as in life, one learns to roll with the punches.

The fact that everyone makes mistakes is a given. What Bob Ross demonstrates is that mistakes can often be the start of something new — and even more beautiful — than what we’d first imagined.

Don’t sweat the haters.

“You’re going to end up in agony city and you’re going to be upset with me, and I want this to work for you.”

Bob Ross got hate mail. Let that sink in a moment.

In several of his episodes, Ross makes references to angry letters from viewers, questioning why a certain technique didn’t work for them, asking why he wouldn’t paint animals or buildings, or even complaining that the paintings he created (with the intent to provide practice and instruction of specific techniques) “all look the same.”

People even wrote to complain that the palette he uses on the show looks different than the one his company sells, implying he was trying to scam them (he sands his with sandpaper in order to eliminate a glare on camera).

Regardless of how kind, how thoughtful, or how talented you are, there will always be people you can’t please.

Hard circumstances don’t have to make hard people.

“Maybe there’s a big tree… He’s all gnarly and bent. He’s had a hard life. He’s like me — he’s been kicked around and beat and banged. Oh, poor old tree… In nature, dead trees are just as normal as live ones.”

Ross was famously private when it came to his personal life, but various comments he made throughout over 400 episodes of painting suggest he didn’t exactly have an easy upbringing.

The son of a waitress and a carpenter (who divorced, remarried other people, divorced again and then remarried each other, all while he was still a child), Ross dropped out of school after ninth grade to work with his father for a time in carpentry, where he lost the tip of his index finger in an accident.

He spent 20 years in the military, a job he professed to hate, before embarking on a risky journey to become a full time art instructor. He was married thrice, with the first marriage ending in divorce and the second in the death of his wife. Ross eventually lost his life to cancer at only 52 years old, taking most of his audience by surprise, as he made no public mention of his struggle with the illness.

My own life experiences have left me closer to one of Ross’ scraggly old trees than his strong, happy ones. It’s hard not to let suffering turn us cynical or bitter. To see that one can experience consistent hardship and still exude the warmth and joy that Ross always did reminds me that hard times don’t have to harden me.

Ross explained it himself: “You need the darkness to appreciate the light. You need hard times to appreciate the good ones.”

Don’t settle.

“If you ever in your whole career do a painting that you’re totally satisfied with, you might as well stop. You have nowhere else to go. The fact that you’re dissatisfied and can see room for improvement is a blessing. Cherish it. If you’re satisfied with everything you do, then you don’t try anymore. I hope you’re plagued with dissatisfaction through your whole life because if you are, you’ll strive to do better.”

It’s difficult to say how many of the 80 some million people who turned on Bob Ross throughout the decades did so with zero intention of ever picking up a brush. Bert Effing, who was once Ross’ agent, compared the show’s therapeutic effect to “watching an aquarium.”

I myself possess no innate artistic talent nor a desire to try my hand at painting. Like so many others, I tune into The Joy of Painting to listen to Bob Ross speak — to admire the wit and talent in his narrations, soak in his peaceful demeanor and absorb his quiet encouragement.

But whether applied to a canvas or to life or love or even a career, Ross’ message holds true: dissatisfaction can be a powerful motivator.

Perhaps his most important lesson is the one he gives most often — to never give up. As Ross tells us over and over again from the television screen, in that enthusiastic whisper-voice of his: “You can do it. You can. And you need to believe that.”

Journalist. Writer. Domestic violence survivor.

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