Paint By Number: From Leonardo da Vinci to “Space Age Technology”

Paint-by-number traces its history to the vision of the artist, Dan Robbins, and the entrepreneurial prowess of Max Klein, who, together, came up with idea of self-contained art kits as early as 1949. As President of the then-Palmer Paint Co. — the corporate predecessor to Master Craft — Klein was ever-interested in widening the potential marketability of paints sold by Palmer. In the late 1940s, Klein saw that the hobbyist painting market was wide open and hired Dan Robbins to develop products that could be marketed to that niche. Some of Palmer Paints’ first forays into the hobbyist market came in the form of Lil’ Abner figurine painting kits as well as washable paint boards that could be painted, rinsed off, and then painted again.

But it was when Robbins combined these two projects with — as he claims — some inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci that Palmer Paints hit its jackpot. “I remembered hearing about how Leonardo da Vinci would challenge his own students or apprentices with creative assignments,” Robbins reminisced. “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.”[1] Take a little bit of the figurine kits, combine it with painting boards, throw in a little da Vinci, and voilà, we meet the paint-by-number concept and kit. (Art historians largely dismiss Robbins’s claims about da Vinci’s style; what is interesting, however, is that his appeal to da Vinci was a way of legitimizing the paint-by-number style as a “real” genre.)

Although Master Craft cranked out inordinate numbers of paint-by-number kits in the mid-1950s, it also experimented with personalized paint-by-number portraits. Hobbyists could send in photos and Master Craft would send back a marked-out canvas — all set for the amateur artist to fill in. By the mid-1970s (long after the company Master Craft had declared bankruptcy), other companies (like Personal Paintings by General Mills) capitalized on the idea of a tailored paint-by-number portrait.

By 1973, General Mills had developed a way to use what it called “space age technology” to create a paint-by-number portrait from an original color photograph. A scanner would track and analyze 15,000 points across the photograph on 70mm film, translating each dot to a color — this information was fed into a computer to calculate the paint needed for the project. At the same time, another computer directed a laser beam over paper (the artist’s “canvas”), stretching the image to fit 16”x20”, and eventually printing the entire thing with the appropriate color numbers on the canvas. General Mills then mailed the printed image, the paints, and the original photograph back to the artist.

The paint-by-number phenomena took the mid-twentieth century by storm, with enough interest from the hobbyist market to drive it to expand into use of lasers and computers by the early 1970s. It’s a long way from da Vinci.

[1] Dan Robbins, Whatever Happened to Paint-By-Numbers? : A Humorous Personal Account of What It Took to Make Anyone an “Artist,” First Edition (Delavan, Wis.: Dan Robbins Inc, 1998), pp 17.

Popular Science, April, 1973.