The History Of ‘Paint-By-Numbers’ Kits

The idea for the paint by numbers kit first came around in the 1950s.

There is an artist inside of every one of us but sometimes, we just need a little help to make it come out. That is why we probably appreciate the ‘paint by numbers’ kits that we enjoyed when we were a child. Although we may have enjoyed them in our youth, we might not have any clue as to their history. Understanding more about this interesting art kit will help you to appreciate it even more.

The idea for the paint by numbers kit first came around in the 1950s. There were created by a commercial artist based in Detroit, Dan Robbins. He worked in the art departments of car manufacturers for years but in 1949, his career shifted. That was the year he worked with Max Klein, founder of the Palmer Show Card Paint Company.

When he first started his new job, he was illustrating children’s books but before long, he was given a new task. Klein told him to find a way to sell more paint. In order to do so, he created a hobby kit that would move more of those paint products.

The concept came from Leonardo da Vinci’s teaching system. He would use smaller sections of canvas, marked by numbers to make it easier for them to get the hang of painting. “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.”

Robbins would first paint the original artwork and then create the kit by outlining shapes on a plastic sheet that covered the original. The outlines would segment the piece according to color and hue. A number would then be given for each corresponding color.

It took some testing but eventually, the paint by numbers kits was a reality. They were introduced with packaging that said: ‘Every man a Rembrandt’. Since there were launched in the post-war years, people had more leisure time to enjoy such activities. It wasn’t long before it really caught on.

Abstract No. One was the first Paint by numbers kit released to the public. It was popular, thanks to the fact that many people were already familiar with the abstract expressionists of the time. It still lacked mass appeal, however, so a new hobby kit was released and more to follow using a new team of artists. Those sold like hotcakes.

How Did The Public Respond?

Before long, Palmer Show Card Paint Company became ‘Craft Master’ and they employed some 800 people who worked tirelessly to create 50,000 Paint by Number kits daily. 20 million kits were sold in 1955 in America and found their way onto the walls of many homes in America. Even Thomas Edwin Stephens, President Eisenhower’s presidential appointment secretary put together a gallery of Paint by Number paintings made by top White House officials.

Unfortunately, Craft Master could not keep up with the demand and it went bankrupt. They pioneered the Paint by Numbers movement but it wasn’t long before other companies were producing their own versions of those art kits.

The Response of the Art World

Generally speaking, consumers were happy with Paint by Numbers but the art world was not as quick to jump on board. They criticized the kits for undervaluing the work of ‘real artists’ and oversimplifying the creative process. One critic in American Art, who chose to remain anonymous, 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?’”

Since art was able to be copied so easily with Paint by Numbers kits, many people were curious if they were actually an art. The concept eventually got the attention of ANdy Warhol and he quickly became a huge fan of the art kits.

Even though there was some negative talk, Robbins wasn’t overly concerned. He knew that he had brought art to the masses. He even wrote the following in his 1998 memoir, ‘Whatever Happened to Paint-By-Numbers’: “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 the paint. That’s what it does.”