Owen Wilson Knew It Was Time to Make Paint When Bob Ross Was Embraced by Hipsters

The past decade has seen a lot of weird cultural trends, but few were harder to predict than the unlikely reemergence of Bob Ross.

The painter, who hosted the instructional art show “The Joy of Painting” on PBS from 1983 until his death in 1994, doesn’t exactly seem like the kind of celebrity who would find an audience in today’s fast-paced world. Each episode of his show featured him leisurely painting a picture while offering words of encouragement to his viewers. It was soothing background noise at the time, but aspiring artists can now find much more efficient videos on YouTube and MasterClass.

Yet the Internet — which in theory should have been the invention that erased Ross’ legacy — ended up being the very thing that made him relevant again. The 2010s were the decade of the Bob Ross vibe shift, with nostalgic memes turning the unapologetically sincere painter into a symbol of positivity in stressful times. The influx of amateur painters who picked up the hobby during the COVID-19 pandemic only added to Ross’ allure.

That all culminates with “Paint,” Brit McAdams’ new film that sees Owen Wilson donning Ross’ iconic curly afro to lampoon painting television shows. McAdams wrote the script in 2010 — with Wilson becoming attached several years later — but it took over a decade for financing to come together. But to Wilson, it was delightfully serendipitous that the timeline aligned with America’s newfound appreciation for Ross.

“My dad worked at a PBS station growing up, so I had seen him, but I didn’t have the patience as a kid to watch the show,” Wilson said in an interview with IndieWire. “But you see people wearing Bob Ross tee shirts and there’s Bob Ross merchandise out there … He’s become somebody embraced by hipsters.”

It all makes sense — except he isn’t actually playing Bob Ross in “Paint.” Anyone who glanced at the film’s posters and saw Wilson painting in a curly wig would be forgiven for thinking this was some kind of biopic, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

In the film, Wilson plays Carl Nargle, a fictional Vermont painter who lets the glitz and glamour of hosting the biggest painting show on the local public access station get to his head. Wilson does a delightful job of combining Ross’ warm positivity with the toxicity of a modern influencer to create the narcissistic Nargle.



©IFC Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

So where does Ross end and Nargle begin? Wilson says he basically started with all of the good things that made Ross a star, then imagined him battling the kind of demons that plague so many entertainers when the cameras aren’t rolling.

“I think with Bob Ross, I had kind of watched things before I started. I wish I was better at doing imitations and voices,” he said. “But it was asking, ‘Why has that guy endured?’ And he has just a very soothing, gentle, upbeat, positive quality. And he helps you do something creative. He’s like a teacher. I was hoping we could get a little of that into Carl Nargle, and explain why he’s had the #1 painting show for the past 22 years straight in Vermont. … Now he’s dealing with a bit more ego and vanity than Bob Ross. Maybe he’s not as good as Bob Ross.”

That’s putting it mildly. Not only is Nargle a playboy who has lured seemingly every woman in Burlington into his van for sex before proceeding to ghost them, but he’s also just not that good at painting.

Carl has devoted his entire life to painting Vermont’s tallest mountain, Mount Mansfield, and paints a slightly different picture of it on every episode of his show. He’s gotten pretty damn good at recreating the mountain and the forestry that surrounds it, but he never learned to paint anything else. When a more creative young painter (Ciara Renee) starts competing with Nargle for ratings, he’s forced to reckon with the fact that his life of casual van sex and artistic stagnation isn’t getting him anywhere.


©IFC Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

It’s a charming story, but its producers had to answer one major question before they could tell it: How does one dress to embody Burlington’s biggest sex symbol?

Like so many men, Nargle clearly found a look that worked for him in high school and decided that there was no need to ever update or improve upon it. The fact that “Paint” takes place in the present instead of Ross’ 1980s heyday only adds to the ridiculousness of the costuming. Wilson admits that he was slightly taken aback by his outlandish costumes at first, but soon embraced the process of creating a man who has no idea how cringe he actually is.

“At first I was a bit anxious, coming out in this wig and this denim-on-denim look,” he said. “Very quickly, it started to become comfortable, and I couldn’t imagine this character looking any other way than that.”

IFC Films will release “Paint” in theaters on Friday, April 7. 

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