Painting with Purpose

Libraries are helping patrons discover their inner Bob Ross and painting happy little trees across the country

November 1, 2018

More than 250 patrons attended a recent “Paint-Along with Bob Ross” event at Ann Arbor (Mich.) District Library. Photo: Tracy Grosshans
More than 250 patrons attended a recent “Paint-Along with Bob Ross” event at Ann Arbor (Mich.) District Library. Photo: Tracy Grosshans

For 11 years, Bob Ross hosted The Joy of Painting on PBS. His soothing instruction helped budding artists paint landscapes, mountain ranges, and hundreds of “happy little trees.” The show ended in 1994 and Ross died in 1995, but the internet and streaming services have given new life to him and his program. Libraries have taken up the palette, hosting paint-along nights that blend nostalgia and stress relief—and bring new audiences through their doors.

Patron paint-alongs

During the events, patrons watch an episode of The Joy of Painting and paint along, while library staffers facilitate and provide canvases, paints, and other supplies. Some libraries hire Certified Ross Instructors, trained by Bob Ross Inc., to lead the workshops; others obtain video permissions from the official Bob Ross YouTube channel or buy authorized Bob Ross DVDs.

At Salt Lake City Public Library (SLCPL), Jen Scott, adult services librarian at the Corinne and Jack Sweet branch, has been running the program for more than a year. “It’s such a fun idea, and nostalgia is in now,” she says. The program, which initially began at the Marmalade branch, is held once a month at Sweet and at other system branches as time and demand allow.

The programs have proven quite popular around the country. Josie Parker, library director of Ann Arbor (Mich.) District Library system, says her first event, held in fall 2017, went so well it was expanded into two rooms. Both rooms filled up, so the free program is expanding again. “We expected 60 people, and about 90 attended, so we turned it into a series,” Parker says. Participants ranged from “teenagers to elderly people who are playing around and having fun, to serious painters, to people who pick up on it as a nostalgia thing, and even people who have never heard of Bob Ross.” The most recent event—held over two sessions on September 8—attracted 250 patrons.

Sarah Burris, community relations and marketing coordinator at Northwest Regional Library System in Panama City, Florida, heard about SLCPL’s events and reached out to Scott for details. “One thing libraries are really great at is sharing with other libraries,” she says. Her library has held two programs so far and hosted 20 people per program—double the anticipated attendance. “And we still have a waiting list,” says Burris, “so we’re going to have a third program [in October].”

Costs and benefits

Burris says her total cost for both two-hour classes was $160. “Some supplies need to be refilled, and some don’t,” she points out. Canvases need to be replaced each time, for example, and they had to buy more paint and replace a few brushes. She shows the “Shade of Gray” episode from YouTube because of its manageably limited color palette. “And for the last two minutes of the event, we pause with Bob Ross in the background so people can take pictures with him,” she says.

For libraries hosting more than one event, SLCPL’s Scott says that planning ahead helps stretch programming dollars: “The cost to buy everything was about $250, and that lasts for six or seven programs, plus $50 per program for canvases.” The free 90-minute to two-hour program, broadcast from YouTube, has benefited outreach efforts. “It’s attracted all types of people from all across Salt Lake County. It’s been a great way to get people into the library, and [it’s gotten] a lot of press,” she says.

“Occasionally libraries will approach Bob Ross Inc. for permission to run a class,” says Sarah Strohl, executive assistant at Bob Ross Inc. “We advise the library to contact one of our Certified Ross Instructors about teaching at their event.”

That was the best route for Jennifer Shepley, manager of community services at Chesterfield County (Va.) Public Library (CCPL). Her system’s programming budget is supplemented by its Friends group, and while the instructor fee was high—$800—it included all the painting supplies. Attendees, who were mostly in their 20s and 30s, paid $25 for a one-time, two-and-a-half-hour Friday evening event, including two drink tickets. Proceeds cycled back to Friends of CCPL, and the program attracted a lot of social media attention.

Shepley says the program was a huge success. “We formed a committee to discuss attracting 20- and 30-somethings to the library,” she says. “The county itself suffers from millennial flight, so to speak, and [was] looking for ways to attract this age group.”

How to be like Bob

Librarians looking to host their own paint-along events should keep a few tips in mind. “Try the painting yourself before you do the program, and take notes, because that really helps when you’re facilitating,” says Scott. “And it is an intensive program, so when I’m finished, I’m pretty exhausted. But I get so many compliments, it’s worth the work.”

Parker, who brings a life-sized Bob Ross cutout to her events, agreed. “He’s so calm and happy, and you feel great,” she says. “It’s a moment in time to just clear your head, and I think a lot of people are searching for that peace, particularly right now.”


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