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Paint by Numbers — Happy Little Hobby

Throughout my childhood, I received all manner of arts and craft kits for pretty much every birthday and Christmas. On hot summer days I’d spend countless hours doing crochet and knitting, latch hook, making those pot holders out of scraps of elastic, and yes, painting by numbers.

“But, is it really art,” you ask?

While paint-by-number kits are inherently cheesy — think wanna-be Bob Ross featuring often banal themes—I personally think they’re highly underrated. The “budding artist” can learn a lot about eye-hand coordination, brush control, and color theory, and, by the end of it has a decent little painting to hang on the wall. Besides, somebody has to come up with the original compositions these kits are based upon.

Believe it or not, the first kits were based on the abstract and cubist styles of artists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, but alas, proved deeply unpopular with consumers, Apparently, they much preferred subjects such as landscapes, seascapes, and pets. While critics complained that these hobbyists were nothing more than “number filler inners,” these kits were actually a gateway product, introducing people to art and the process of painting. Art supply stores welcomed the kits as a “transition item,” estimating that ten percent of these paint-by-number hobbyists went on to purchase traditional art supplies with plans to create their own compositions.

“Every man a Rembrandt”

Propelled by postwar WWII prosperity, increased leisure time, and the democratic notion that anyone could paint a picture, paint by number became a popular pastime throughout the early 1950s and beyond.

The first commercially successful paint-by-number sets were created by the Palmer Paint Company. Owner Max Klein, and employee/commercial artist Dan Robbins, collaborated on the concept. Marketed and sold in 1951 under the Craft Master brand, they sold well over 12 million kits!

Each Craft Master kit included: two brushes, up to ninety (count ’em ninety!) premixed, numbered pots of paint, plus a canvas or board with corresponding numbered spaces. As a painting progressed, a picture gradually emerged to the surprise and delight of the budding artist. The packaging even proclaimed, “Every man a Rembrandt!”

Suitable for framing

Paint-by-number works have actually been shown in a number of galleries and art museums through the years. Richard Hess’s incomplete paint-by-number portrait of President Lyndon Johnson—originally created for the June 1967 cover of Esquire, but bumped at the last minute—went on to win numerous graphic design awards. It was even exhibited at the Louvre in Paris!

Other paint-by-number works have been shown in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, following the death of Max Klein in 1993. Klein‘s daughter donated the Palmer Paint Co. archives to the Smithsonian Museum of American History, filed as the “Paint by Number Collection”.

In 1992, Michael O’Donoghue and Trey Speegle organized and mounted a show of O’Donoghue’s paint-by-number collection at the Bridgewater/Lustberg Gallery in NYC. In 2001, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History exhibited many key pieces from O’Donoghue’s collection, along with works from other collectors. In 2011, the Museum of Modern Art in New York accepted four early paint-by-number designs by Max Klein for its Department of Architecture and Design.

Kits even included pamphlets with gentle guidance for the first-time framer.

A painting of a lake or forest might be grouped with “barometers, lake charts, guns, rods, or samples of flies and lures.” Every room in the house deserved paintings, the pamphlets said, and even a child’s room might be turned into a private “gallery.” Diagrams offered lessons in “picture grouping,” “focal spots,” “mass and importance,” and “proper size balance.”

And we have paint off!

According to Wikipedia, in the 1960s, the first images of Mars were actually completed like a paint by number. Who knew?!

Are paint-by-numbers still a thing?

Yes, they there! You too can be a “budding artist”—and you’re never too old to start. I recently ordered several paint-by-number kits for my grandfather who’s almost 94 years old. I figured they’d keep him busy during the Covid shutdown, and, of course, made sure to carefully choose themes I thought he might enjoy, such as seascapes and mountain scenes.

You can even have your own photograph turned into a custom paint-by-number canvas! So, why not upload that Cancun vacation pic of you and your friends wearing sombreros and drinking margaritas at Señor Frog’s, and start painting by numbers. Oil’é!

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Martini Minute

Hi Everybody! I’m Roberta Morris, Founder and Creative Director of Leave It to ’Berta. Read my take on all things colorful and creative.