Hermann Zschiegner moved from Austria to New York to go to Columbia University in 1999. He lived in a tiny fourth floor walk-up with a couple of guys. 

They had a TV, but no cable. He watched what was available, which at the time were re-runs of the Joy of Painting, which featured Bob Ross.

The TV show Ross created ran on PBS from 1983 to 1994.

Ross was a self-made American. He served in the military for 20 years, mostly in Alaska. While in the Army he took an art class and was inspired by a TV program called The Magic of Oil Painting created by Bill Alexander.

Ross started selling paintings on novelty gold pans. When he began to make more money than his day job in the army, he retired. He went to work for Alexander’s company painting in Florida.

Alexander was a pretty interesting character. He was drafted into the German Army and captured during WWII. Later, he painted Allied officers’ wives. 

Alexander adopted a process used by the Flemish in the 15th century to paint quickly called wet-on-wet. He hosted a PBS show from 1974 to 1982 called the Magic of Oil Painting.

At that point the wheel of fortune turned for Ross.

Alexander got a call from a woman named Annette Kowalski. She had suffered the loss of her 24 year-old-son in a traffic accident and coped by painting, learning technique by watching Alexander’s show. She asked him to teach her. 

Alexander said he was not accepting students and referred her to Ross.

Kowalski became enamored of Ross. She persuaded him to dream big and arranged for him to teach group classes by renting out conference space in hotels. 

When no one came, her husband suggested Ross make a video tape of his process. 

When a PBS executive saw it, he hired Ross. Basically, Ross took the TV perch that Alexander had once enjoyed. Alexander told the New York Times he felt betrayed.

Kowalski explained in an interview that she was mesmerized by Ross. She realized that most people who watched him didn’t paint. “They just watch. They like to hear his voice.” 

Ross, who died in 1995 from lymphoma at the age of 55, used the show to build a business selling paints, easels, canvases and other art supplies.

Ross owed his success to his time in the Army. The iconic landscapes came from the mountains he saw in Alaska. His calm demeanor came from a vow never to yell at anyone again. The hairstyle that has since become an Internet meme was an effort to save money by cutting his hair less often. 

Bob Ross came back into Hermann’s life twenty years later after Hermann started a graphic design company called TWO-N Inc. and began to hire millennials who loved watching the show.

At the time that Ross was enjoying a revival on the Internet, Hermann decided to take a machine learning class. He needed a corpus to analyze. Most people do speeches by Lincoln or other politicians, texts that are widely available on the Web. 

Hermann thought of Ross. There had just been a Bob Ross marathon live streamed, which meant that the closed captioning could provide a transcript. He downloaded the text and got to work.

According to Hermann, “Few artists have spent as much time talking about the act of painting as Bob Ross.”

Ross would explain what he was painting and how, which meant the transcript left clues about how often he talked about colors or subjects such as mountains.

Hermann ended up publishing the transcript in a 31 volume set of books.

“The book cover and spine contains various data visualizations of certain key-words and colors mentioned by Bob in each season of the show. The resulting timeline of the word-counts look like an abstract mountain range, Bob’s favorite subject matter.”

Hermann wasn’t the only one to analyze Ross. The web site FiveThirtyEight did a statistical analysis in 2014 and concluded  among other things that Ross almost never painted people (only twice.)

The FiveThirtyEight author, Walt Hickey, classified each Ross painting based on the subject, ie mountain or cabin.

He then used Ross as a way to understand conditional probability ie the likelihood that a painting of a cabin also included a cloud. 

Hermann went down the Bob Ross rabbit hole to break down key word and color patterns.

One of my favorites illustrates that Ross started to “think” less and “know” more over time. Here is the chart:

There was also an evolution of his color palette. Ross used more blue and less green. Red held steady.

There was a notably large use of the word “doing” compared with “thinking,” which might help explain his commercial success.

One of my favorite things about Hermann is that he does things like analyze Bob Ross as a hobby. He also wrote a program to generate visual images of the Austrian Alps printed as if in dot matrix.

In his day job he designed the market data display systems at the New York Stock Exchange and more recently he’s focused on map visualizations used in the recent U.S. presidential election.

If you could benefit from a bit more Bob Ross in your life, click here.