Why Bob Ross Made 3 Copies of Every Painting on His Show

As Bob Ross, the 1980s and '90s TV-famous painter, surges back into the public consciousness, let's examine one of his more unusual compulsions—that of making not one but three copies of his paintings.

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Throughout most of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, the show The Joy of Painting aired on PBS. Its host had a short, sweet name and a distinctive perm and facial hair. That’s right—Bob Ross. As if out of nowhere, his name is in the public discourse in 2019, and fans are curious about everything from his painting habits to his singular coif. And one peculiar habit that he had was that of making three versions of every single painting for his show. Why? Before we find that out, why are people suddenly so interested in him in the first place?

What’s behind his sudden popularity?

In two words: the Internet (what else?). In 2015, the streaming platform Twitch broadcast a nine-hour marathon of The Joy of Painting episodes to commemorate what would have been Ross’s 73rd birthday. The stream garnered a surprising amount of viewers, and Bob Ross started appearing everywhere, from memes to inspirational posters to Halloween costumes. In 2016, Netflix compiled several episodes from later Joy of Painting seasons into a show called Beauty Is Everywhere, which is still available for streaming today.

Another thing that could be giving Ross’s popularity a boost is the rising popularity of “paint bars,” where people of any painting ability can get a tutorial and produce a painting, following the guidelines of an instructor who paints the same thing. (Raise your hand if you’ve seen an Instagram story of someone doing one of those, garnished with a Bob Ross GIF. Or posted one yourself. Us too.) Whatever the reason, Bob Ross is back, and people are learning more and more about him. And one of the more perplexing discoveries is that he made three copies of each of his paintings. If you’re an art fanatic, you’ll definitely get a laugh from these 7 funny paintings that show art isn’t all seriousness.

Why did he make three copies of everything?

Is it because one just isn’t enough when it comes to painting perfection? Not quite. According to Atlas Obscura, Ross first made a model of the painting he was going to create on the show so that he’d have a reference for the taping. It’s similar to the way that the guides at today’s paint bars have the “display” painting that participants are following, and also paint their own version at the same time as the participants. Bob Ross was a true pioneer!

So that’s two copies already. But what about the third? The third copy, the final one he painted, was for his instructional books and was supposed to be the most “flawless” version. Ross had something of a “third-time-is-the-charm” mentality.

Where are they now?

The Joy of Painting ran for 403 episodes, and Ross produced a painting in 381 of them. (The other episodes featured a guest painter.) So where are those paintings—all of which, theoretically, would have three identical versions? In July of 2019, the New York Times set out to discover why this celebrated artist’s paintings are so notoriously difficult to find and buy. It turns out that a massive collection of them is just sitting in boxes, in a Virginia warehouse that also serves as the offices of Bob Ross, Inc. A few others hang on the walls of the same building. Bob Ross, Inc. is owned by Annette Kowalski, the woman who first “discovered” Ross and later became his business partner.

And the team at Bob Ross, Inc. is adamant that they’ll never sell his paintings. “It never occurred to us to…change the whole concept that we’re not in it to sell paintings,” Bob Ross, Inc. president Joan Kowalski told the New York Times. Ross reportedly didn’t want them up for sale, and even his surging Internet popularity hasn’t pressured Bob Ross, Inc. to change their stance on that.

But soon, some of the paintings will be emerging from those boxes for display in one of the most popular museums in the world: The Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Four Ross paintings, chosen by Smithsonian curators, are now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. And though the museum has no concrete plans to showcase the paintings yet, we’re sure that Ross’s massive Internet fan following will make it known the moment they do. We’re not sure if Ross’s paintings have any secret symbols or messages, but these 10 famous paintings definitely do!

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for RD.com since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.