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The 1980s show that is helping us feel better

American artist Bob Ross became famous in the 1980s with his TV series The Joy of Painting. Although he died over two decades ago, Bob’s on-screen art lessons are now more popular than ever after being re-released on YouTube and by BBC Four.

But the audience of millions isn’t all made up of aspiring artists. Instead, some young people are using the calming content and soothing sounds of Bob’s voice to ease anxiety, reduce stress and help them get to sleep. In Happy Little Trees, Jack Taylor explores why.

Bob Ross in The Joy of Painting, BBC Four

Bob creates an oasis of calm

As student medic Orkun explains, we live in a fast-paced society, but Bob slows things down. He shows viewers how to reproduce tranquil natural vistas, from ocean sunsets to mountain ranges and snow-covered forests, using paint on canvas. For many people, it’s calming just to witness Bob at work, slowly piecing together a scene brushstroke by brushstroke. As one interviewee tells Jack, “It’s hard to feel anxious when you’re watching him paint.”

Bob’s gentle, wholesome, low-key delivery helps too. An ex-soldier, it’s said that when he left the US army, he vowed never to raise his voice again. His tutorials are so softly spoken and soothing to listen to that for some people the audio alone has a relaxing, soporific effect.

In Bob’s world, a blob of paint in the wrong place is just a “happy little accident” waiting to be turned into something beautiful.

It can feel like company in a time of isolation

As Jack learns from Nick, a volunteer for the student support service Nightline, feelings of isolation are common among the young. “Despite people being everywhere, it is very intensely easy to be quite lonely.”

With the arrival of coronavirus, many people feel more cut off than ever. But hearing Bob warmly chattering away quietly can create a cosy sense of company.

“You can paint along, or just put him on in the background to hear this man talk about painting, and just what’s going on with his life at that moment,” Nick explains.

There’s no such thing as a mistake

In Bob’s world, a blob of paint in the wrong place is just a “happy little accident” waiting to be turned into something beautiful. With a lot of young people feeling under increasing pressure to succeed, and fearful of failure, it’s a message that resonates.

Fern, a 20-year-old painter and Bob Ross fan, explains: “Nothing that you can do in a painting is a mistake. If you see something different then he encourages you to sort of go along with it.”

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Mountain Path, from The Joy of Painting, Series 1 (Episode 1 of 26), BBC Four

The paintings offer freedom, escapism and adventure

“Just let your imagination take you to any land that you want to live in. Any place that you wanna go,” Bob whispers. His rivers, peaks, woodlands and waterfalls aren’t real places, but utopian creations dreamed up in Bob’s imagination.

Young people can feel under huge pressure from many angles, but Bob offers a world where they’re in control. He invites students to paint their own fantasy lands, adding extra trees or rocks, or changing the colours. “He jokes that in his world the only power he’s got is to take the trash out,” Fern says. “Whereas when he’s doing paintings he can move mountains.”

Bob explains, “I spent half my life in the military, and there I had to live in somebody else’s world all the time. And painting offered me freedom... I could paint the kind of world that I wanted. It was clean. It was sparkling, shiny, beautiful... Everybody was happy”.

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Sunset over the Waves, from The Joy of Painting, Series 1 (Episode 16 of 26), BBC Four

Bob’s tips and techniques reveal wise life advice

The low-key tutorials are sprinkled with thoughtful observations and optimistic aphorisms.

When describing the balance between light and dark shades in his palette, Bob muses, “[You] absolutely have to have dark in order to have light… It’s like in life, you’ve gotta have a little sadness once in a while so you know when the good times come.”

He talks a lot about friendship too, offering surreal riffs on parts of his paintings, such as: “So that misty area, right now, is absolutely your best friend. Take care of it. Treat it like you would any good friend. You care about it. Treat it with respect and it’ll always be there when you need it.”

The paintings invite us to explore nature

Spending time in nature can be calming, but for young people in urban areas it may feel far away. Bob’s paintings offer a window onto the outdoors. Fern says, “I live in Doncaster, which is a fabulous town, but we don’t have any mountains or any fantastic scenery of this sort.” So, when Bob paints a wood, a lake or a skyline, it’s “something I don’t get to see, I’m not exposed to, so I think to [be able to] wander off into this fantasy land is fantastic, really.”

Hidden Stream, from The Joy of Painting, Series 1 (Episode 12 of 26), BBC Four

Bob believes in you

A quote on the Bob Ross website encapsulates his philosophy: “All you need is the desire to make beautiful things happen on canvas.” The warm, supportive way he talks viewers through each tutorial suggests he thinks anyone can create a masterpiece. Even if you’re not painting along, it’s hard not to be uplifted by Bob’s encouragement.

As one of Jack’s interviewees says, sometimes you just want Bob Ross “to tell you that it’s all alright... and, you know, whatever you want in the world, you can have if you believe it. And that’s a reassuring message.”

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Winter Barn, from The Joy of Painting, Series 1 (Episode 15 of 26), BBC Four

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