Can’t Sleep? Let Bob Ross Help You Find Some Happy Little Zzzs

Posted June 12, 2018 2:01 p.m. EDT

For years, insomniacs have been lulled to sleep by the dulcet voice of Bob Ross, the bushy-haired painter whose PBS show, “The Joy of Painting,” rose to popularity in the 1990s and has lately enjoyed a second life on YouTube. Now, the maker of a popular meditation app hopes Ross will put everyone else to sleep, too., which produces meditation products, is recasting classic episodes of “The Joy of Painting” into “Sleep Stories,” an audio series designed for restless adults to ease the burden of slumber. It is the first time the company that manages Ross’ estate has agreed to license audio of the show that turned Ross into a celebrity and, after his death in 1995, a pop culture favorite.

“We asked ourselves, ‘What would Bob do?'” said Joan Kowalski, president of Bob Ross Inc., which is based in Sterling, Virginia, and oversees licensing of the artist's brand name. “Using his voice to help put people to sleep? Well, he would love that.”

Ross was born in 1942 in Daytona Beach, Florida. In 1961, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where he served for two decades and started his life as an artist, painting trees on metal pans. In 1983, he began hosting “The Joy of Painting,” which attracted viewers enamored of his soulful witticisms (“We don’t make mistakes. We have happy accidents.”) and the soothing swish of his painter's brush on canvas.

Even then, his folksy demeanor garnered significant attention. In 1993, he was featured in promos for MTV. His technique, called “wet-on-wet,” allowed him to finish painting a scene in about 30 minutes. Ross said in a 1990 interview that he was not paid to do the show. Instead he made millions selling how-to books and painting videotapes, and licensing his name for paints, brushes and easels.

He acknowledged, too, that his honeyed voice caused some viewers to nod off. “They watch it strictly for entertainment value or for relaxation,” Ross told The Orlando Sentinel. “We’ve gotten letters from people who say they sleep better when the show is on.”

Michael Acton Smith, a founder of Calm, said in an interview last week that he was browsing in a bookstore in San Francisco’s Noe Valley more than a year ago when he came across Ross’ “Happy Little Accidents: The Wit and Wisdom of Bob Ross,” chock-full of the artist’s iconic idioms. Ross spoke fondly, in particular, of the landscapes he painted with “happy little trees.”

“I thought he was quite mindful,” Acton Smith said.

Acton Smith grew up in Marlow, about 35 miles from London, and had not heard of Ross. So he looked him up online and came across his show. “His voice blew me away,” he said. Back at the office, the Calm staff gushed about the artist. Then Acton Smith found out Ross was dead.

He said he contacted Bob Ross Inc. to see if it would allow Calm to use audio from “The Joy of Painting” for its sleep series. The first installment made its debut last week, with two more to come this summer. If those prove popular, Acton Smith said Calm could license more.

Kowalski said it was the first time a company had licensed audio from the show, although the company once allowed the maker of a bobblehead doll to use recordings of Ross' favorite lines.

“When we got the audio for the bobblehead, you could hear his brush strokes,” she said. “They asked if they could edit the sound out. We said, ‘Oh, no.’ That’s part of the allure. He doesn’t sound as good without the swishing of the brush and the scraping of his knife.”

“We hear from people almost daily who are going on to YouTube to hear his voice,” she added. “People back in the day were shy to tell him they fell asleep listening to him. They thought it would insult him. He loved it.” Craig Richard, a professor of physiology at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, and author of the coming book “Brain Tingles,” used to watch “The Joy of Painting” after school when he was a boy. “I’d get on a floor pillow and fall asleep halfway through,” he said.

As a professor, he has explored Ross’ videos in relation to autonomous sensory meridian response, more commonly referred to as ASMR, a state of deep calm brought on by the sound of clothes rustling, a pencil scribbling or, in Ross' case, a brush on canvas. “You don’t need the visual,” he said. “Just his voice and sounds could trigger a relaxing state.”

More important, said Kowalski, the new app gives Ross another life. “He wanted to go on and on forever,” she said. “He had a thirst to become a household name.”