A then-little-known painter with a poofy perm, aviator eyeglasses and an unruly brown-gray beard looked into the camera for the first time in 1983 and spoke to an audience that over the next four decades would grow into the millions and make him one of the most famous artists in the world.
“Hi, I’m Bob Ross, and … I’ll be your host as we experience the joy of painting,” he said, holding a palette and standing next to a blank canvas. ” … I think there’s an artist hidden in the bottom of every single one of us, and here we will try to show you how to bring that artist out, to put it on canvas.”
Ross spent the next 27 minutes transforming that blank canvas into “A Walk in the Woods,” a still life of a gray, rocky path leading away from blue waters to cut through a forest of brilliant yellowing trees.
More than 40 years later, that painting from the first episode of Ross’ famous instructional TV show, “The Joy of Painting,” is for sale. What Ross donated to a PBS station in 1983 so it could be auctioned off is now on the market for $9.85 million.
“It’s a truly irreplicable, one-of-a-kind painting,” said Ryan Nelson, owner of Modern Artifact, the art dealer that now owns Ross’ first TV artwork.
What no one knew when Ross painted “A Walk in the Woods” is that he would go on to star in more than 400 episodes of “The Joy of Painting,” which aired from 1983 to 1994, a year before Ross died of lymphoma at the age of 52. Seasons 2 through 31 of “The Joy of Painting” were filmed and produced at WIPB-TV studios in Muncie, Indiana.
Ross’ fame has only grown in the nearly three decades since his death. Bob Ross Inc., the company that owns the rights to his TV shows, has more than 5.6 million YouTube subscribers. The 635 videos posted by the company, including all “The Joy of Painting” episodes, have been viewed more than 610 million times. In death, Ross has become one of the most famous painters in the United States, beloved for his gentle teaching style and relentless optimism.
“People want to paint. It’s like a secret thing that people want to do. And it’s just sort of, you know, he’s blown the lid off of it,” Bob Ross Inc. President Joan Kowalski told The Washington Post. ” . . . He’s telling you constantly that you really and truly can do it.”
After Ross painted “A Walk in the Woods,” he donated it to a now-defunct PBS station in Northern Virginia where they had filmed the episode, Kowalski said. It was one of three Ross paintings that the station auctioned off later that year, Megan Hoffman, a Modern Artifact spokeswoman, wrote in an email. No one remembers the exact amount paid by the volunteer who bought the painting, but if it’s in keeping with others sold at that time, she probably paid less than $100, Hoffman added.
After buying it, the woman displayed the painting in her home for the nearly 40 years she owned it, Hoffman said. Hoffman declined to identify the volunteer or the amount Modern Artifact paid her.
“This painting is an invaluable piece of Bob Ross’ collection, something she understood as well,” Hoffman wrote. “This painting meant a lot to her, and she found inspirational support in looking at it each day.”
About two years ago, the volunteer asked Bob Ross Inc. to verify the authenticity of the painting, Kowalski said. Bob Ross Inc. set out to determine that it was not only painted by the company’s namesake, but also that it was the one he created during the first episode of “The Joy of Painting.”
Ross normally made three paintings for each episode – one before taping he could use as a reference, another for the actual episode and a third for later use in instructional books. In later episodes, Ross marked the TV version.
Analysts at Bob Ross Inc. synced up footage from the first episode with the painting in front of them, checking to see if his brushstrokes and knife work on the small screen jibed with the painting in front of them, Kowalski said. After two days, they determined the painting was authentic.
“We were able to really zero in watching the video, looking at the painting and being able to really, really tell just from very, very minute details that it was definitely that painting,” Kowalski said.
After it was authenticated, the former volunteer sold it to Modern Artifact last year.
“She wanted others to be able to enjoy the painting,” Hoffman wrote. “It has also afforded her a chance to invest in her future with the money she gained from the sale.”
Nelson, the owner of Modern Artifact, said in a statement that his gallery is accepting all offers to purchase “A Walk in the Woods” but would prefer to share it with a museum or traveling exhibit “to allow as many people as possible to view such an exciting work of art.”
In the 27th minute of that first episode, Ross wrapped up his first on-air painting by scraping some brown paint from his palette and stabbing it into the yellow underbrush of the forest he had created from nothing. He explained to his painting protégés that he was adding “sticks and stuff” to build distance and create depth. He managed to work in some words of encouragement as he did so, asking if they were “getting excited yet?”
“You ready to paint with us?” he added. “You can do it.”
Ross finished “this rascal” by signing his last name in red in the lower left corner. With the painting done, he told his audience that he hoped they enjoyed watching him paint and looked forward to seeing them for Episode 2.
“We hope you have your brush ready, a dream in your heart that you want to put on canvas and join us right here for ‘The Joy of Painting,'” he said. “And you, too, can build fantastic pictures.”
Ross finished by driving home his belief about the origin of artistic creation, something that wasn’t the exclusive purview of those “blessed by Michelangelo at birth” but accessible to everyone, including the person watching at home who needed only a nudge of encouragement to bring their artistic dreams to life.
“You can take them from here,” Ross said, pointing to his heart before gesturing back to the canvas, “and put them on there.”