Alizarin Crimson. Cadmium Yellow. Dark Sienna. Phthalo Green. Prussian Blue. Titanium White. Van Dyke Brown.
If you can rattle off these colors, you’re likely familiar with the dozen oil paints Bob Ross used to create landscapes in “The Joy of Painting,” his iconic public television series. And you’re probably equally familiar with the appeal of this genuine, soft-spoken man who has encouraged countless people to try their hand at his painting technique and find satisfaction in doing so.
Now you can tour the similarly unassuming television studio in which Ross filmed 182 episodes of “The Joy of Painting.” The former studio of public broadcasting station WIPB in Muncie, Indiana was once the home of the Lucius Ball family and is now part of the Minnetrista cultural complex. Minnetrista has transformed the first floor of the home into an interactive exhibit of original artifacts and Bob Ross paintings honoring this iconic television series and its creator.
In 1983, the little-known art instructor toured the country, giving workshops on the wet-on-wet oil painting technique. Beginning with an undercoat of white paint on the canvas, he added successive layers of paint to the wet background, sweeping a brush or wiggling a knife to blend and pull colors into deep, vibrant hues that became trees, mountains, clouds and lakes in seconds.
For one of those workshops, Ross packed up his supplies and drove his Datsun camper to Muncie. The warm welcome he received there led him to conclude that Muncie would be the perfect home for his television series, and WIPB would be its producer. For the next five years, he came to Muncie four times a year to film episodes.
During filming, WIPB staff who worked upstairs in the Ball home had to sit still to prevent the floor from creaking, as well as turn off the heat off so that the system’s hissing wouldn’t be heard on the episode recordings. During breaks, Ross and his crew would relax, tell jokes, eat lunch and drink iced tea together on the front steps of the home.
The recreated television studio, complete with its plain, black curtain to keep the viewer focused on Ross and his work, includes several original Ross artifacts. There’s the palette on which he layered and blended oil paints, two of the three cameras used for filming, and the converted stepladder Ross fashioned into an easel on which to “beat the devil” out of his brushes.
Across the hall, an Eighties-style living room is a comfortable haven for us Generation Xers. Bookshelves are filled with period crock-pot cookbooks, Sunset gardening guides and LaVyrle Spencer novels. LIFE magazine’s “The Year in Pictures,” a TV Guide and a Mead Trapper Keeper three-ring binder are arranged on a coffee table. A crocheted afghan is draped on the sofa, near a rotary-dial phone. An E.T. videotape rests atop a television console playing “The Joy of Painting” clips.
Throughout the exhibit, I discovered several fun facts about Ross, many of which are presented in clever ways. Did you know that before each show, he took a whiff of Vicks VapoRub, clearing his sinuses to ensure a smooth, velvety voice? He also kept a hair pick in his back pocket to fluff out his signature permanent, which he initially adopted to save money on haircuts while trying to get by as an art instructor.
The exhibit conveys how hard Ross worked to make “The Joy of Painting” a success, making at least three paintings for each 22-minute episode to get a scene just right. He carefully planned each composition, thinking through the best way to present the process, and executing each painting with patience and without hurrying. His calming, encouraging ways continue to resonate with viewers.
It also provides interesting details about Ross’s status as a member of the Muncie community, joining friends to go antiquing in nearby towns, participating in Habitat for Humanity events, giving special painting demonstrations for PBS fundraisers, and even owning a home there for a time.
I left Minnetrista’s “Bob Ross Experience” with increased admiration for how much this gentle man put people at ease and encouraged them to try something new. He may have found fame, but he stayed true to his quiet, genuine self.
To complement the exhibit, Certified Ross Instructors teach classes at Minnetrista in the wet-on-wet painting technique.
For more on Bob Ross, see Happy Clouds, Happy Trees: The Bob Ross Phenomenon, by Kristin G. Congdon, Doug Blandy and Danny Coeyman; and Life Lessons from Bob Ross: Be a Peaceful Cloud, Bob Ross and Peapod the Squirrel, and The Bob Ross Cookbook: Happy Little Recipes for Family and Friends, all by Robb Pearlman. To see Lee Cowan’s February 28, 2021 CBS Sunday Morning segment that inspired my plans for this field trip, click here.