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You probably remember “Paint-by-Numbers” kits from your childhood, but do you know the history of how they came to be? A mix between a coloring book and painting on a canvas, painting by numbers allows anyone to create a detailed work of art, even if they’ve never taken an art class. The simple art sets were first invented in the 1950s and they still remain popular for both kids and adults today. Despite this, very little is known about their original creator, Dan Robbins.
Robbins was a Detroit-based commercial artist who began his career working for the art departments of various car manufacturers. In 1949, he started working at Palmer Show Card Paint Company alongside the company’s founder, Max Klein. At first, Robbins was hired to illustrate children’s books, but Klein soon tasked him with a new, more urgent mission: sell more paint. His solution was to devise a hobby kit that would promote the sale of Klein’s paint products.
Robbins based his concept on Leonardo da Vinci’s teaching system of numbering sections of his canvases for apprentices to complete. “I remembered hearing about how Leonardo da Vinci would challenge his own students or apprentices with creative assignments,” Robbins recalls in his autobiography. “He would hand out numbered patterns indicating where certain colors should be used in specific projects such as underpainting, preliminary background colors or some lesser works that did not require his immediate attention.”
To create each kit, Robbins first painted an original artwork, and then placed a plastic sheet over it and outlined the shapes for each hue and shade. Each segment was then given a number and corresponding color. After trial and error, Robbins’ Paint-by-Numbers kits were born, and were introduced to the public with packaging that proclaimed, “Every man a Rembrandt.” Post-war, they were launched during a time when American people had more time for pursuing leisurely activities, and the concept quickly became a cultural phenomenon.
Robbin’s first ever Paint-by-Numbers kit was called Abstract No. One—a vibrant, abstract still life that paid homage to the abstract expressionists of the era. Unfortunately, the design wasn’t commercial enough to appeal to the masses, so Robbins, Klein, and a new team of artists started to produce less abstract landscape and portrait hobby kits that proved to be more popular.
Palmer Show Card Paint Company was renamed to Craft Master, and the company quickly grew to 800 employees who worked around the clock to produce 50,000 Paint by Number sets a day. In 1955, around 20 million kits were sold in America, and finished works hung proudly in homes across the country. Even President Eisenhower’s presidential appointment secretary, Thomas Edwin Stephens, curated a gallery of Paint by Number pieces made by administration officials in the White House.
However, not long after its initial success, Craft Master went bankrupt, as it couldn’t keep up with the demand. Although Craft Master remains the iconic pioneer of the paint by numbers movement, numerous rival companies soon emerged and started producing their own versions of the hobby kits.
While the consumers’ response was positive, Paint-by-Number kits triggered a strong reaction from the art world. They were criticized for oversimplifying the creative process and undervaluing the work of “real” artists (some Paint-by-Numbers designs were based on famous paintings). One anonymous critic in American Art wrote, “I don’t know what America is coming to, when thousands of people, many of them adults, are willing to be regimented into brushing paint on a jig-saw miscellany of dictated shapes and all by rote. Can’t you rescue some of these souls—or should I say ‘morons?’ ”
Paint-by-Number kits meant that art could be infinitely copied, leaving many wondering if they could even be classified as art at all. However, the concept unsurprisingly caught the attention of Pop Art icon Andy Warhol who is known for his love of repetition. He become a dedicated fan and collector of Paint-by-Number canvases.
Despite the backlash, Robbins wasn’t overly concerned about the negative response of art critics, because he achieved his dream of bringing art to the masses. In his 1998 memoir—Whatever Happened to Paint-By-Numbers?—He wrote, “I never claim that painting by number is art. It is the experience of art, and it brings that experience to the individual who would normally not pick up a brush, not dip it in paint. That’s what it does.”