‘Paint’ already made Bob Ross fans mad. For his brand, it’s a happy little accident

A side-by-side of Bob Ross lookalike Carl Nargle and Bob Ross himself
Owen Wilson as Carl Nargle in Brit McAdams‘ “Paint,” left, and the character’s inspiration, Bob Ross.
(IFC Films; Netflix)

Growing up, writer and director Brit McAdams was fascinated by the quietly captivating Bob Ross. He regularly watched Ross’ PBS series, “The Joy of Painting,” which aired from 1983 to 1994. But over the years McAdams began to wonder what would happen if Ross wasn’t the guy he appeared to be.

“He had this incredible power over you,” McAdams explains. “If you had someone who was seemingly the nicest person in the world and who had this power over people, what if that person didn’t use that power for good? What happens if the person onscreen isn’t that person offscreen?”

These questions ultimately led McAdams to create “Paint,” a film about a Bob Ross-like local celebrity named Carl Nargle (Owen Wilson) who has a painting show on Vermont public TV. Carl shares several notable traits with Ross: permed hair, a soft-spoken delivery and a penchant for painting bucolic landscapes. He’s also a ladies’ man who begins to go off the rails when a younger artist, Ambrosia (Ciara Renée), creeps into his spotlight.


But McAdams, who has been developing the idea since 2010, doesn’t see “Paint” as a parody of Ross. Neither does Wilson, who prepared for the role by watching YouTube videos of Ross and taking a painting class with a “Certified Ross Instructor,” of which there are more than 1,500.

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“I don’t see it as a parody, and that’s not usually a genre that I’m instantly drawn to,” Wilson says. “I don’t think there’s any winking at the audience from the character. No one’s ever even laughing in this movie. They’re very serious about their lives, as we all are about our hopes and the way things don’t work out.”

Tonally, “Paint,” which opens Friday, may not be a parody, but by legal standards it is. Although Carl does work for a PBS station, in the film that stands for the “Public Broadcasting Syndicate.” And because Carl Nargle is fictional, no permission was required from Bob Ross Inc. In fact, the filmmakers didn’t reach out, although the company is aware of the film.

Bob Ross Inc., which sells licensed products, runs the instructor program and generally handles Ross’ legacy, receives around 100 calls each day on its hot line. Six phone operators are available to chat with fans or to answer questions, and when the trailer dropped there were some concerned calls. People were especially upset about the scene in which Carl steals newspapers off lawns.

“Our fans are ferociously loyal to us,” says Joan Kowalski, president of Bob Ross Inc. “A lot of Bob Ross fans are not on the internet. They’re not emailing. They’re not on social media. They will call us and tell us if something is out of place. With the newspapers there were people saying, ‘I just know that Bob wouldn’t do that.’ And we were like, ‘No, no, no, it’s all good.’”

A man wearing a cowboy shirt with a pipe in his mouth, flanked by a woman holding a mug and another in the background
Owen Wilson as Carl Nargle with Lucy Freyer, right, as Jenna in “Paint.”
(Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release./IFC Films)

Kowalski, who describes the film as “a cute take on the characteristics of Bob,” welcomes anything that raises Ross’ profile in the zeitgeist. Bob Ross Inc. has embraced the resurgence of popularity around the painter. In 2015, the company inked a deal with Twitch to allow the channel to stream all 403 episodes of “The Joy of Painting.” It designs T-shirts targeted to college students. It even approved the use of Ross’ voice on Lil Yachty’s recent song “We Saw the Sun!”

In general, the love for Ross seems to be growing, which Kowalski attributes to his singular philosophy.

“Bob Ross ruled public television,” she says. “It was mostly for viewers to learn how to paint, but his personality and his attitude came through even back then. Now, it’s so much more. It’s not only the painting — there’s this heightened ability that he’s got to really touch people with what he’s saying. He’s a much more well-rounded icon than he used to be.”

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In creating Carl Nargle, Wilson wanted to tap into that quality. Visually, Wilson and McAdams referenced both Ross and Gordon Lightfoot, but much of Carl’s presence is drawn from Ross.

“It’s nice when someone like that can live on because it’s not as easy to explain his popularity,” Wilson says. “The best answer I can give, having thought about it some, is we all remember having a great teacher and it’s rare. And Bob Ross was a great teacher — somebody reassuring and supportive and teaching you something good. Painting feels good to our mind and has a meditative quality. I think it says something nice about us as a culture that someone like Bob Ross can endure and be so popular.”

For McAdams, “Paint” is a good-natured tribute. He has heard from worried fans but hopes they will understand that it all comes from a positive place. Much like Ross himself.


“I love that people are looking to protect Bob Ross,” McAdams says. “And I love Bob Ross. He was a safe place [for me] as a kid. I don’t think I’ve ever turned off a Bob Ross painting show. But this is its own world and there’s no making fun of Bob Ross here. There’s nothing but love.”

VIDEO | 07:40
LA Times Today: Owen Wilson shares what to expect from ‘Paint’

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