Bob Ross appeared on public television for 11 years. In 381 episodes, he taught America how to make a painting.
But when one of our colleagues decided he wanted to buy one of these paintings, a simple search yielded odd results. There were hundreds of landscapes on offer in the “style of Bob Ross” or “inspired by Bob Ross” (he did, after all, teach viewers precisely how to reproduce his canvases) — but none credibly sourced to the man himself.
Perhaps they were in a museum? Or on the walls of some PBS affiliate somewhere? There were no auction results, and certainly none (that we could find) for sale.
The internet, of course, had noticed this as well. Animated threads on Reddit and elsewhere suggested that as many as 30,000 paintings had somehow been lost.
We decided to try to find them.
Our search was timely. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History had recently acquired a few of Ross’ paintings for its collection, memorializing his work alongside such figures as Julia Child and Fred Rogers.
What will be in the Smithsonian?
Bob Ross made three versions of each painting that appeared on “The Joy of Painting.” The first was made before the show, to be used as a reference. He painted the second during the 26-minute taping, sometimes with last-minute improvisations. The third was made afterward, for instructional books.
The donation to the Smithsonian includes the book version of “Blue Ridge Falls,” from Season 30 (1994), as well as all three versions of the painting “On a Clear Day,” from Season 14 (1988). Other items include a converted stepladder that was used as an easel used during the first season of the show, and two handwritten notebooks that were used to plan the production of Seasons 2 and 3.
How were the objects chosen?
“The hardest part was choosing the paintings,” said Eric Jentsch, the entertainment and sports curator for the National Museum of American History. Jentsch and his colleague Ryan Lintelman visited the offices of Bob Ross Inc. in Herndon, Virginia, to find the images and materials that best exemplified Ross’ lifetime of work.
The Smithsonian also acquired fan letters sent to Ross, including some written after he died of lymphoma in 1995 at 52. “These letters help reveal the significant impact Ross has had on diverse individuals and communities, helping them to express and feel better about themselves,” Jentsch said.
The paintings and other objects officially became part of the museum’s permanent collection on March 22.
For now, the Smithsonian has no plans to display the paintings.
How many Bob Ross paintings are there exactly?
We don’t know.
According to an analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight, Ross painted in 381 of the 403 episodes of the show (the rest featured a guest). If three versions were made of each of those paintings, at least 1,143 originals would exist. Bob Ross Inc. estimates it has 1,165 paintings stored on site.
But Ross also painted as an instructor, as well as for public events and for charity, so there may be additional paintings out there.
How much does one cost?
In the rare cases when a Bob Ross painting does surface, it depends who is buying. Joan Kowalski, president of Bob Ross Inc., said she has seen authentic Ross paintings sell online for $8,000 to $10,000 in recent years.
After we set out on our quest, a three-panel painting described as a “Bob Ross Original Oil Painting Triptych Mountain Landscape” surfaced on eBay. It is listed at $55,000.
How do I have a painting authenticated?
Bob Ross Inc. will authenticate paintings that are sent to be inspected in person by Annette Kowalski, Joan Kowalski’s mother and the woman who discovered Ross. (The company will not certify images that can be viewed only as scans or digital files.)
Annette Kowalski said that in addition to the brushwork and other signs of Ross’ hand, she looks for a specific detail in the quality of his signature that she declined to describe.
If a painting is certified as an original Bob Ross, the owner will be provided with documentation attesting its authenticity.
Where can I see an original Bob Ross painting?
Bob Ross Inc. is not open to visitors. Some of the original paintings are displayed at the Bob Ross Art Workshop & Gallery in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Starting next year, people will be able to visit the studio in Muncie, Indiana, where the show was taped.
Is it true that there are no people in the paintings?
In the 11 years that Ross painted on television, there are only a few known instances when he included a human figure in his landscapes. In “Morning Walk” (Series 17, Episode 11, from 1989), two people stroll through the woods. And in “Campfire” (Series 3, Episode 10, 1984), a figure in a hat leans against a tree.
According to Annette Kowalski, “Campfire” was among Ross’ least favorite paintings.