|Guinness World Records lists Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as having the highest ever insurance value for a painting. On permanent display at the Louvre in Paris, the Mona Lisa was assessed at $100 million on December 14, 1962. Taking inflation into account, the 1962 value would be around $850 million in 2019. (I saw the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and was surprised at how small and ordinary it really looked!) But did you know that in his lifetime, Da Vinci created only 20 paintings? Rembrandt created 600 and Van Gogh 900. That’s a ton of paintings. But wait…Pablo Picasso created 13,500 pieces. That seems absolutely unbelievable but do you know there is another well-known artist who was three times that prolific?
Yep. Bob Ross. The guy on TV with the Chia Pet perm, soft voice and cute little sayings like, “We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents.” Bob Ross created a whopping 30,000 paintings. And they aren’t for sale!On YouTube, old episodes of his show, The Joy of Painting, boast over 450 million views. Online, you can acquire Bob Ross paints, Bob Ross brushes, Bob Ross underwear, Bob Ross coffee mugs, Bob Ross energy drinks, Bob Ross watches, and Bob Ross toasters.But there’s one thing you won’t often see for sale: his artwork.
Here is an excerpt from Zachary Crockett of The Hustle on Bob Ross and his popularity as a painter:During his lifetime, Ross produced tens of thousands of paintings. Yet, only a handful of his works have popped up for sale in recent years. When they do appear, they often fetch $10k+ and attract dozens of bids.Why is the work of one of history’s most prolific and accessible artists so scarce on the open market?To find out, I spoke with art gallery owners, auctioneers, art collectors, ex-colleagues who worked with Ross, and the president of Bob Ross, Inc. — the company that preserves his legacy.The man behind the canvasBorn in Daytona, Florida, in 1942, Ross dropped out of school in 9th grade to work with his father, a carpenter.At 18, he joined the Air Force and moved to Alaska, where he’d spend the next 20 years as a drill sergeant, screaming at recruits. He was such a hard-ass that he earned the nickname “Bust ’em up Bobby.”But his life changed when he discovered art.Inspired by the TV painter Bill Alexander, he started painting landscapes on gold mining pans and selling them at local markets in Alaska.His income from painting soon surpassed what he made in the military. So, in 1981, he migrated back to Florida, trained under Alexander, and became a certified painting instructor.
Now, here’s where things took a wild turn for Ross:One of his students, Annette Kowalski, was “mesmerized” by the jolly painter and encouraged him to strike out on his own.They pooled together their life savings, launched Bob Ross, Inc., and set out to make Ross into a TV star.A PBS executive gave them a shot.The show — The Joy of Painting, which aired between 1983 and 1994— was a huge hit and was broadcast on ~300 stations to 80m+ people every day.In each 27-minute episode, Ross would paint one landscape from start to finish, shepherding viewers through his process with a soothing disposition, entertaining commentary, and an occasional guest appearance by his pet squirrel, Peapod.Ross didn’t get paid for his shows. But Bob Ross, Inc. — which he partially owned — used the platform to sell paints, art supplies, workshops, instructional videos, and merchandise. By 1991, it was a $15m/year ($29m today) enterprise.The actual paintings, though, were largely an afterthought.Over the course of his career, Ross filmed 381 episodes of The Joy of Painting. For each episode, he painted 3 versions of the same artwork — one before, one during, and one after taping.But his TV career only scratched the surface of his total output.Pre-fame, in Alaska, he sold thousands of paintings. And even while famous, he painted nearly every day at seminars, events, and charity auctions in between tapings.All told, Bob Ross churned out ~30k paintings in his lifetime — nearly 3x the output of Picasso, a prolific painter in his own right.
BOB ROSS, INCORPORATED
As a part of Ross’s agreement with Bob Ross, Inc., the paintings he created for TV were work for hire, meaning the company maintained ownership of his work.When Ross died in 1995, Bob Ross, Inc. (and thus, the paintings) became the sole property of Annette Kowalski and her husband, Walt.Today, 1,165 Bob Ross originals — a trove worth millions of dollars — sit in cardboard boxes inside the company’s nondescript office building in Herndon, Virginia.Joan Kowalski, Annette’s daughter, and the current president of Bob Ross, Inc., tells The Hustle that the company had never really given the paintings much thought.“The paintings have always just sort of been here,” she says, with a chuckle. “We were sort of behind the times… it never occurred to us that anyone would want them.”The company, which can be reached by dialing 1-800-BOB-ROSS, gets constant inquiries from folks about buying the paintings.But they’re not for sale.“Our only mission,” Kowalski says, “is to preserve the mythological wonderment that was Bob Ross.”
I think all of us have watched Bob Ross at some time in our lives, and most of us have bought his products. Hard to imagine painting that many paintings in a lifetime. A lifetime that was fairly short. Ross died at age 52 from complications of lymphoma. I found the information about his life fascinating. Hope you do too.