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Can You Believe It? Bob Ross, the Icon of Calm, Once Commanded as an Air Force Drill Sergeant

Key Points:

  • Bob Ross, known for his gentle demeanor and iconic paintings, served 20 years in the US Air Force.
  • During his military career, he worked as a harsh drill sergeant, contrasting his later persona.
  • Ross developed his painting skills while in the Air Force, which led to his iconic TV show, The Joy of Painting.

Bob Ross: From Strict Drill Sergeant to Beloved Painting Instructor?

Bob Ross
Bob Ross

The name Bob Ross evokes images of a soft-spoken artist calmly painting “happy little trees” with his iconic afro. However, before finding fame as a gentle TV painter, Ross spent two decades as a stern drill sergeant in the United States Air Force.

According to War History, enlisting at just 18 years old, Ross spent 20 years in the Air Force, much of it stationed in Alaska. There, he served as a first sergeant and drill instructor, responsible for disciplining recruits and demanding they follow strict orders.

“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,” Ross explained of his military role. “The job requires you to be a mean, tough person. And I was fed up with it.”

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Discovering a Passion for Painting

It was during his time in Alaska that Ross first encountered the snowy landscapes that would become iconic subjects of his future paintings. He discovered his love for art while attending a painting class at the USO, later mastering the “wet-on-wet” oil painting technique pioneered by German artist Bill Alexander.

Ross began painting serene natural scenes as an escape from the stress of military life. “I’d paint the kind of world that I wanted,” he recalled. “It was clean, it was sparkling, shiny, beautiful, no pollution, nobody upset – everybody was happy in this world.”

After over two decades of yelling commands, Ross made a resolution upon retiring in 1981:

“I promised myself that if I ever got away from it, it wasn’t going to be that way anymore.”

The former master sergeant became an instructor for Alexander’s company before launching his own business with former students in 1982. A local TV station took a chance on Ross, and “The Joy of Painting” was born, running for 11 years and bringing his soothing voice and nature paintings into homes across America.

Though worlds apart from his military persona, Ross’s stint as a drill sergeant instilled him with the discipline to host nearly 400 episode sessions in just two days each. His landscape paintings offered a gentle escape, making Ross a beloved pop icon.

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The Joy of Painting aired its final episode in 1994, a year before Ross tragically passed away from lymphoma at age 52. For the millions who took comfort in his simplistic scenes and words of encouragement, Bob Ross will forever be remembered as a happy little painting legend.

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