Painter Bob Ross was as famous for his serene demeanor as he was for other singular traits, like his frizzy, rounded hairstyle and idyllic landscape paintings. So the idea that Ross used the stimulant drug cocaine may seem unrealistic, and for good reason. It’s an internet rumor that has no basis in reality.
In late June 2021, a TikTok user posted a video insinuating that Ross, a wholesome presence on screen who punctuated his televised painting tutorials with cameos of cute forest animals, may have had a dark secret.
TikTok user @Kenstet96 posted a video with a computerized voice-over stating, “When you see it, you’ll know.” The video then zooms in on Ross’s left hand holding his palette. Ross’s pinky finger, the video shows, had a long nail.
The video prompted some viewers to cheekily comment that they believed the long nail was a “coke” or “cocaine nail,” a term for having a significantly longer fingernail used for snorting the illicit substance. Others stepped in to comment that Ross, like many other painters, used the long nail as a painting tool to scrape excess paint off the canvass.
Neither is correct, but the latter is closer to the truth.
To settle the matter, we reached out to Bob Ross Inc. and got a response from the organization’s president, Joan Kowalski (the daughter of long-time Bob Ross business partner Annette Kowalski).
“Bob used his pinky fingernail much like artists use what’s called a mahl stick,” she wrote in an email, explaining that, “It’s a way to apply paint close to the canvas without letting your hand touch the wet surface.”
Another thing about Ross’ hands that viewers may have never noticed without close inspection was that he was missing a portion of his left index finger, the result of a carpentry accident when he was a child. Other trivia about him was that he spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, where he served as a drill sergeant. He also grew to hate his hair but couldn’t change it because the permed sphere atop his head had become iconic.