Happy Accidents

What Bob Ross can teach us about the world


in Features


I always looked forward to Saturday mornings as a child. The good cartoons were always on between the hours of nine and noon, and I never really had to change the channels to find what I wanted. I was fortunate to grow up with cable television, but, as with most kids, it could have been better. Our television was a cabinet style model. The picture tube was encased in a wooden cabinet, and the television itself had a tuning knob for 13 different channels. I learned at an early age about that knob. With cable television, the actual knob on the television wasn’t meant to be changed from channel four, because for the cable box to work the television itself had to stay on channel four. Even after all these years, I’m still at a loss as to why it worked that way. But I do remember our cable box. It was a small, gray rectangular prism with two green knobs. One had approximately 50 channels, and the other one was much smaller and labeled, “tuning.” I was forbidden to turn the smaller knob. For some reason, I must have never been curious about it, since I have no recollection of ever touching it.

My spot in the living room was always somewhere on the floor. I liked to lie on the floor and read, or at least look at the pictures, or color/draw while I watched television with my parents. My being on the floor was a fantastic thing for them. I was closer to the cable box and the television; I was a living, breathing remote control. But Saturday mornings meant the television was mine.

I can remember lying on the floor watching my Saturday morning cartoons, but I can’t remember exactly which ones I was watching or what channel they were on. However, I do know Alvin and the Chipmunks was supposed to be part of my Saturday morning line-up. Something went wrong. For some reason, they weren’t there. I crawled across the room to the cable box and changed the channels. There were no chipmunks anywhere. I never changed the channel past channel 14 because there weren’t cartoons on any of the upper channels, so I stopped on Channel 13. There was a man painting pictures. Sometimes, mom let me paint with watercolors but never in a room with carpet flooring, and absolutely never while I was wearing nice clothes. I think I was mostly fascinated by this man painting while wearing regular clothes, without a garbage bag smock, and on something other than newspapers or his dad’s old computer printouts from work. I remember my mother asking me why I wasn’t watching The Chipmunks and I could only reply that I couldn’t find them, but I kind of liked watching that guy paint. The painter in question was none other than Bob Ross. Looking back on the first time I turned the television to my local PBS station, I can say for certain that Ross’s painting show became part of my regular Saturday morning routine and stayed that way for many years.

Bob Ross was a popular 20th-century American painter. And yet to me and so many other people, he was so much more than that, and thanks to the internet and pop culture, he is still a figure in our everyday existences. Not much is actually known about Ross, but, for those of us who have tuned in to his The Joy of Painting series (now in syndication) over the last 30 years, we know him. We know not just the character, Bob Ross, but we really know the man. We know his mannerisms and enthusiasms, how he cleans his bigger two and a half inch brushes, how he mouths “swooshing” sounds as he paints waterfalls, and how he talks about his rescue animals.

Part of the painter’s charm comes from the fact that so little is “known” about him. Because of how he carried himself on his show, and through his paintings, the viewers probably knew more about the man than they realized after 30 years of watching Bob Ross on public television, that there is more to him than his paintings and his soft-spoken voice. He is a philosopher for Everyman. I say that because as he paints he sprinkles in loads of life truths. He appears to be talking about the painting he is working on during the show, but in reality, I fully believe in more than the painter, Bob Ross.

Before his show’s cancellation in May 1994 and his death from lymphoma in 1995, Ross painted approximately 400 paintings within his half-hour episodes for/with his viewers at home. His style of painting is wet-on-wet, or for the art critics out there, alla prima, the same technique that was popular as far back as the 1600s.  (Rembrandt and Monet are two notable wet-on-wet artists). Ross was humble when it came to his art; there was nothing divaesque about him. In every single episode, he painted along with the painters at home. When he spoke to viewers, there was no condescending or authoritarian tone. He believed he was on equal ground with the viewer and that once the technique was mastered, then the talent, inspiration, and skill would come naturally. “We start with the vision in our heart, and we put it on canvas because you too can paint almighty pictures.” For Ross, pictures were locked deep inside the soul, they just had to be coaxed onto the canvas.

When I first saw Bob Ross on TV back when I was a child, the most “art” I had ever produced were scribbles containing a multitude of colors, or at least as many different colors and color combinations that could be derived from a Crayola box with eight crayons. Granted, I could color inside the lines of various coloring pages, but, as for creating my own art, scribbles were really all I had going for me. I remember seeing this man on television with the most radical hair I had ever seen. It was like a reddish-brown Q-tip. I would learn later that the style was an afro, but that wasn’t important; I just knew that was some interesting hair. He wore the same style of clothing every week: a button-down shirt (only buttoned halfway), a pair of jeans, and sometimes eyeglasses. The format of his show was simple. He explained exactly what we were going to paint that day, how the canvas was prepared pre-show, and exactly which colors and brushes would be used to create these fantastic little paintings of nature featuring forests, seascapes, trees, and mighty mountains.

It is hard to believe that a man with so much humility and such a soft-spoken nature was ever a drill sergeant in the United States Air Force, but that’s the story that has always been told. Luckily for us, we have gotten to know the byproduct of his service record, his soul and paintings. Bob Ross viewed nature as an almighty living, breathing part of our very existence as humans, and treated all parts of the natural world (animals and plant-life alike) with dignity and respect. He approached painting in the same way. He respected the paint and the canvas because his joy in painting was found in how the landscapes flowed from his heart and mind, through the brush, and onto the canvas. That message was conveyed throughout his shows.

Since The Joy of Painting series began on public television in 1983, we have been exposed to numerous quotes from Ross that, seemingly taken out of context, are highly applicable to life. I find myself using many of them. It’s a scary and lonely world out there, and sometimes I have to remember that all I have ever needed to know about living a full, happy life (or at least attempting to live a full, happy life) can be found in the philosophy of Bob Ross.

There were over 400 episodes of The Joy of Painting. It is in syndication on public television, and it’s available for streaming on services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and every single episode can be found on YouTube. “We don’t make mistakes, just happy accidents” is one of the most famous quotes that has stemmed from the show and Bob Ross. The quote has been said in many ways over the course of those 400 shows. Sure, on the surface he is talking about painting, but I think he’s talking about something more.

You see, mistakes are funny things. As a child, I felt like mistakes were bad, and making mistakes was a bad thing, but as I’ve grown into adulthood I think I finally understand this very basic teaching from Bob Ross. If we let go of the notion that mistakes are bad, our hearts are free to embrace the happy accident that may result from said mistake. If nothing good comes from the mistake, then we are open to being able to try again without fear. Mistakes aren’t bad — making a conscious, bad decision is bad. Mistakes are just mistakes waiting for the opportunity to be a happy accident.

For Ross, the philosophy behind having a happy accident highlights life’s beauty and how that beauty is found in imperfections. On his shows, he would briefly explain how to paint certain aspects of the painting of the day, but mostly he encouraged the viewers to look at the world and all its imperfections by saying, “It’s the imperfections that make something beautiful; that’s what makes it different and unique from everything else.” I know Bob Ross, the painter, was talking about how the trees in his paintings weren’t perfect. I don’t know, the trunk may have been crooked, or there were some leaves that turned out to be a little catawampus. But to me, I look at all the brokenness out there, mostly the broken people. I’ve noticed that people who are different and broken are the absolute, most beautiful people I have ever encountered. I don’t mean physically beautiful, although they can be, I mean spiritually beautiful. These are the most selfless people, even when they have been taken advantage of or emotionally devastated. These people often have a different outlook on life, and they have the unique ability to see the beauty that is around them. They have learned from their devastating circumstances, and they work to make the world around them a better place. They show more compassion than they have been shown, and they truly work to ensure that they never break another’s soul. Nothing physical in this world is meant to be perfect. Bob Ross, the man, taught us that we need to embrace our differences and unique perspectives. When we do that, our world will be a beautiful place filled with a unique love and an appreciation for everything and everyone around us.

Ross likes to remind his viewers that, “it’s amazing what you can do with a little love in your heart.” Love is an amazing thing. And I’m not just talking about romantic love or involvement. I am talking about the ability to provide unconditional care and love in everyday life. I’m often reminded of the film, Love Actually — “Love really is all around.” Thoughtfulness is actually love, even if we don’t exactly think of it that way. We feel good when we do good things for others, especially when we never anticipate getting anything in return. Random acts of kindness are performed with love, not because we feel like we should be better people or because we need a key to the pearly gates, but because that’s part of what it means to be human. Part of our nature is to show love, but we forget that we have to make the choice to be kind and that it doesn’t always come naturally, especially in today’s emotionally devoid society. We have become detached from one another, and fear seems to cloud our ability to show love and compassion. Going through the motions of kindness isn’t the same as performing those acts with thought or care. The thought and compassion behind acts of kindness are where love is found.

In Ross’s world, everything he painted was happy. Were these painted parts of nature actually happy? I don’t think the trees or clouds were experiencing happiness. I think Ross was the one feeling happy. I think happiness is a choice. No one is responsible for making you happy, and you are not responsible for someone else’s happiness. This is a plain and simple truth. The only person responsible for my happiness is me. However, contentedness and happiness are not the same things. Contentedness is a complacent state, a settled state. Choosing to settle is not the same as choosing to be happy. Ross found happiness teaching and sharing with others his joy of painting. He was more interested in helping others find their own piece of happiness, and that very well may have been how he chose to find his. Maybe that’s how we are all meant to find our happiness. Be kind to one another. Help one another. Show others how to find their own happiness.

In looking back at The Joy of Painting, I believe Bob Ross understood how being kind to one another and choosing to be happy and appreciative of our differences can lead to friendship. In his world, friendship was important. He often said, “Even trees need a friend; we all need friends.” Friends are important. Ross never painted solitary trees. After he painted one tree, usually an evergreen tree with an “almighty” fan brush, he immediately noted that “this tree needs a little friend,” or something to that effect, every single time he painted a tree. He knew that we can’t all be recluses or hermits in the mountains. At some point, we need human interaction. We need to share our joys, fears, heartaches, and sorrows with another person. That need for interaction is human nature. I know how difficult it can be to trust another person with our most personal of circumstances and experiences, but sometimes just talking things over with a close friend can be liberating. Just having the confidence to share with another individual can calm even the most anxious mind. It feels like a superpower. For anxiety-ridden me, making friends is ever so difficult. I worry about how I will be received if I will only be tolerated or not liked at all. But it is a wonderfully overwhelming experience when I can find that one person with whom I can connect, without fear, judgment, or rejection. To me, that is truly an accomplishment. Even if Ross was referring to painting some trees, he understood the power of friendship and human needs.

With his keen understanding of human nature, he knew that the world isn’t always happy, safe, or even welcoming of differences. He knew that there is darkness out there, whether that darkness is found in society or within us as individuals. Over the years of watching Bob Ross paint, and not painting along, I have noticed that he often references light and dark, and joy and sorrow while he’s painting. Usually, when talking about dark and light, he is adding highlights to trees or bushes. He says if you “Put light against light — you have nothing. Put dark against dark — you have nothing. It’s the contrast of light and dark that each gives the other one meaning.” When he says this, I don’t believe he’s talking about highlighting bushes or putting in shadows of a cabin in a winter scene he is painting. On the surface, he might be teaching a painting technique, but deep down he is teaching us all about life. We can think in binaries all day long, but Ross has a major point. Unless you have experienced true sorrow and loss, it becomes difficult to recognize and appreciate the good life has to offer.

I know I forget this. I have suffered from anxiety and depression for years, but since my separation and subsequent divorce, it has gotten worse. Sometimes I conjure unnecessary demons that weren’t there 12 hours earlier, but I suddenly experience some disappointment, and I’m on the train leaving the station. My demons consist of overthinking situations that happened years ago to wondering what is wrong with me as an individual. I hop on the train at times of high stress or when everything has particularly gone wrong for me over the course of the day. I do take medication to help control it, but it doesn’t always help. Of course, it would probably help more if I took the medication on a regular basis, but during particularly high times when I am experiencing the light when I think I’ve beaten my anxiety and depression, my body is really just balanced from the medication. It becomes an endless cycle; however, I have learned to see the dark for what it is — a signifier of the light that’s coming. I am my own worst enemy, but even my darkest darks can’t compare to the lightest lights I encounter when I remember that these two experiences work in tandem.

Surviving the darkness in our world and being able to come full circle to the light is, in fact, a miraculous experience, and that experience isn’t lost on Ross. He reminds us that just being here, at this moment, is a good thing, “This present moment is perfect; simply due to the fact that you’re experiencing it.” It is important to remember that every moment we have is perfect even if everything seems to be going wrong. Each moment we have is special because we have been given the gift to experience it. I think Bob’s message here is clear . . . be grateful. You survived the dark. Be grateful for the light. Remember, “the least little bit can do so much.” It doesn’t take much to be grateful. It doesn’t take much to treat each other with kindness and love.

Every single painting was a glimpse into Ross’s world. He has stated on numerous episodes of The Joy of Painting that he lived in Alaska for quite some time. His paintings were often inspired by the Alaskan landscape. They weren’t exact copies of the Alaskan wild he saw, but what he saw in his heart. Every painting came from his heart, and he encouraged all of us at home to remember that we were only learning a technique, not copying his work. He wanted us to paint our world as we saw it — to follow our hearts. Following your heart takes a leap of faith. It takes real courage. We have to remember; our world is ours. The leap of faith may seem crazy or irrational, but just like Ross’s famous “bravery tests” of painting a large tree over an entire side of his beautiful painting, we have to remember to be courageous. We have to believe in the act of tossing logic out of the window and following the path we desire. We just have to believe that we really can carve our own desired path in this world, no matter how irrational it may seem. After all, he did leave us with the best advice, “In your world, you can do anything your heart desires.” Just remember to be kind, show love, and revel in the uniqueness around you. •

Images illustrated by Barbara Chernyavsky.


Stephanie L. Haun holds an MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Creative Nonfiction from Queens University of Charlotte.  When she isn't teaching or scrambling to meet deadlines, Stephanie is a Perry Mason fanatic, an avid knitter, and a sometimes trombonist.