Paint by Number$

updated 09/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE VOICE-MELLOW AND HYPNOTIC-WAFTS over you like peppermint clouds in an azure sky.

Er, make that tangerine breezes on a celadon plain. Or lilac petals on a pale jade lawn, perhaps?

"This is your own little world," reassures Bob Ross. "Maybe there lives a happy little tree right there." So Ross paints a tiny tree on the canvas before him. "The beauty of this is that you can't really make any big boobies," he says, "just happy accidents."

And happy converts. As the Mr. Rogers of art instruction, the gentle, always encouraging Ross, 48, has made The Joy of Painting, the how-to TV show he hosts, a surprising success. Explains Ross, who can crank out a landscape in 26 minutes flat, of his canvas-do attitude: "When I show people that if they put their mind to it, they can paint a beautiful painting, they begin to believe in themselves."

It's motivation with a market. Carried by 290 stations, Ross's weekly show is the most-watched art program on public TV. Although he receives no pay for doing the show, Ross hawks products—brushes, knives, paints—that he himself markets, and which are essential to the Joy method. Bob Ross Inc., with its staff of 30, claims to sell about 35,000 start-up kits ($39.95 apiece) each year. A hardcover coffee-table book, The Best of the Joy of Painting ($24.95), is in its fourth printing, and More of the due out this fall. In addition, 300 certified Bob Ross instructors teach classes around the country. Joy is also televised in Korea, Mexico and Japan.

Ross is mum on how many dollars all these activities net him. But he is effusive about his celebrity, even claiming to be delighted by lampoons from cartoonists such as Gary (The Far Side) Larson. "I take it as a supreme compliment," Ross declares. These days, he is so busy teaching that he rarely gets to paint his own canvases ($300 to $1,000 and rising).

Just keeping track of the Bob Ross Inc. executive lineup takes some doing. Its star artist holes up in Orlando. The three other corporate officers—Ross's wife, Jane, 48, vice president and treasurer; Chief Executive Officer Walt Kowalski; and his wife, Annette, also a vice president—all live in separate homes within commuting distance of the company's headquarters in Sterling, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C. (The explanation for the foursome's independent domiciles is that they need time alone to get their work done.) Ross, who takes in injured and abandoned wildlife, currently shares his house with three crows and three squirrels. Among dozens of his own paintings hangs a poster of Albert Einstein, a Ross idol (his other: Leonardo da Vinci). In the driveway sits a silver-blue custom 1969 Corvette, a remnant of his amateur drag-racing days.

For someone who relished speed, Ross got off to a slow start. He was born in Daytona Beach, Fla.; his late father, Jack, a half-Cherokee, worked in the building trades, and his late mother, Ollie, was a salesclerk and a waitress. His parents divorced when he was 1½, remarrying each other late in life (Ross has three half brothers). As a poor boy, Ross found his escape in art. In school, which he quit after the ninth grade, "I used to get in trouble in math class because I'd be drawing instead of doing the computations."

After working as a carpenter, Ross joined the Air Force at 18 and a year later enrolled in his first painting class at the Anchorage USO club. He soon began turning out souvenir gold pans, with scenery painted on the bottom, and selling them for $25 each. Ross was posted to Alaska, his favorite painting subject, three times during his 20-year Air Force stint. When he retired as a master sergeant in 1981, he and second wife Jane were living in Fairbanks with Ross's son by his first marriage, Steve (now 25 and a certified Bob Ross instructor). Jane and Steve stayed home while Bob took his teaching act on the road, setting up classes through art stores. "I told Jane, 'If I run out of money, I'll come home, get a real job, and we'll live like normal people,' " Ross remembers. In Florida he hooked up with Annette Kowalski, one of the many students who heard about him through word of mouth. "I couldn't believe it, the way women showed up at the class not having slept for weeks because they were so excited to meet him," she says. She advised Ross, "We ought to bottle this and share it." The chance came in 1982, when a Washington, D.C, station offered Ross his own show.

A 1985 angioplasty operation to remove heart-artery blockages underscored Ross's natural tendency to stop and paint the flowers. "Every day is a gift," he says. He dreams of someday having a children's TV show that would include a cartoon Bob, "the little painter man. I want to tell kids that they don't need drugs because they can take trips mentally," he says. "They can go anywhere they want to. Look at me."

MEG GRANT in Orlando

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