In 1953, the Detroit-based paint company Craft Master was the driving power behind the paint-by-number craze that swept the midcentury hobbyist market. Not only had the company invented the paint-by-number movement, they had quashed their competition in the process. Even in the 21st century, the basic premise of paint-by-number holds true: With enough curiosity, and the ability to follow basic directions, anyone can be an artist.
For five years, Craft Master honed the assembly and distribution of their kits, employing professional artists to develop the kitschy scenes that quickly came to be inextricably associated with the paint-by-number genre — flowers, bullfighters, fishermen, dancers, landscapes, even copies of famous works of art. By the early 1950s, the company had 800 employees who produced 50,000 paint-by-number sets a day, grossing what they claimed to be more than a million dollars a month By 1954, Craft Master was credited with manufacturing enough paint-by-number kits to total over $80 million in sales, published 10 million copies of their 64-page product catalog, and could boast lengthy features in Time and Life. Two years later, however, unable to keep up with domestic and international demand, Craft Master went bankrupt, a victim of its own success. Paint-by-number kits continued to sell through the 1960s, as other companies stepped into the void left by Craft Master. In the ’70s, advances in computer scanning technology allowed painting enthusiasts to order personalized kits, created from computer-digitized photographs, converted to an outlined map of the image and printed on canvas, ready to paint.
Ever since their commercial release, paint-by-number kits have been a convenient ready-made metaphor for the commercialization and mechanization of culture in the early 1950s. Consequently, and unsurprisingly, paint-by-number art triggered a strong, immediate reaction from the art world — a community that was none too pleased to see hobbyists take up their paintbrushes and crank out a Craft Master copy of The Last Supper. “The denunciation of paint by number became a sport among social critics preoccupied with the raw edge of suburbia, where mass culture seemed most at home with jerry-built entropy of supermarket sad hearts, tract houses, picture windows, and pink lampshades,” art historian and curator William Bird, Jr. observes. “The unchecked popularity of number painting threatened artistic values, just as the parlor lithograph of an earlier day had leaved the cultural authority of art; paradoxically, the mechanical process of reproduction made art more accessible.”
According to the midcentury critics, “real art” was the product of its historical provenance. By this logic, paint-by-number kits were nothing but an infinite number of copies of some commercially manufactured painting, and copies of silly things that that. There was no singularity to the paint-by-number experience, no expertise that could be showcased, just copies and copies and more copies still. Detractors to the genre could hardly even deign to consider paint-by-number popular art — to the mid-20th-century art world, paint-by-number was hardly art at all. Art, especially high culture art, certainly didn’t come in a box, the paint-by-number critics sneered, with capsules of pigment and the pretense that any Everyman could paint.
But the numbered painting genre caught the populist wave of the American Pop art movement as well as the cultural cachet of avowed professional amateur artists like Grandma Moses. By the mid-20th century, thanks to companies like Craft Master, more Americans were familiar with paint-by-number art than they were with post-surrealism or any other genre. Somewhere between velvet Elvises and Shrinky Dinks, paint-by-numbers has become firmly entrenched in the world of genuinely kitsch Americana, inspiring denizens of do-it-yourselfers to take up their paintbrushes.
The numbered painting genre 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. (Unbeknownst to Robbins, there were a few similarly styled paint sets marketed to children that had been in the toy market for close to three decades; when Klein’s research turned up already existing patents for the idea, he simply ignored them, arguing that what he and his company were doing totally different.) As President of the Palmer Paint Co. in the 1940s — the corporate predecessor to Craft Master — Klein saw that the hobbyist painting market was wide open and hired artist 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 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.” Take a little bit of the figurine kits, combine it with painting boards, throw in a little da Vinci, and voilà, meet the paint-by-number concept.
Interestingly, art historians can offer no concrete evidence to substantiate Robbins’s claim about Leonardo’s supposed style of outlining objects for others— namely, apprentices — to fill in. The entire point of Leonardo’s distinctive technique, known as sfumato, was to blend colors; art historians contend that these blurred lines gave Leonardo’s paintings a smoke-like appearance – scarcely the hard lines and rigid shapes that are the foundation of every paint-by-number piece. “While there is a long history of recognized artistic masters assigning different parts of paintings to apprentices and underlings based on their respective skills,” art historian Erin Thompson argues, “paintings certainly wouldn’t have been divvied up by outlining rough shapes and then designating specific paint colors to fill in the empty areas. That’s part of the mythos-building of paint-by-number.”
Leonardo might not have pioneered the formulaic technique that Robbins developed, but by using the Renaissance master’s name, the paint-by-number art movement gained an important bit of legitimacy to its audiences, making them “real art.”
Artistic legacy aside, the paint-by-number concept was relatively easy to develop, and Dan Robbins quickly hit on the first four scenes that would comprise Craft Master’s first manufactured sets. These first paint-by-number kits were to contain a canvas with the painting’s subject outlined, a paintbrush, and a palette of paints in small capsules. The nitty-gritty details of actually manufacturing and assembling the kits, however, were another story.
First and foremost, providing the kits with individual paint sets turned out to be a logistical nightmare. Craft Master eventually hit on the idea of filling pharmaceutical capsules with paint and bought thousands and thousands of .000 gelatin capsules from Eli Lilly. (“Ultimately, we bought so many boxes from Eli Lilly, they became suspicious as to how we were using their capsules, fearing we were filling them with drugs or other unapproved substances,” Robbins recalled. “After a brief visit from the FDA, we were able to assure everyone concerned that we were merely filling their capsules with paint. They couldn’t believe it!”)
The assembly-line manufacture of the kits required a lengthy series of iterations to refine the best way to get all of the parts into the kits; and after months of headaches, trial-and-errors, glitches, and more problems, the kits went into departments stores. And then no one bought them. Concerned that the kits weren’t selling — and having sworn to department stores that they would — Max Klein hatched the idea of paying people to demonstrate the kits in the department stores to show potential customers the potential and possibilities each kit contained. Artists set up shop and painted-by-number Craft Master’s fishermen, bull fighters, and horses. Klein used some of the company’s own money to buy kits early on, to convince stores that there was demand for the paint-by-number concept.
By 1952, the kits flew off the shelves and Craft Master has firmly established itself in the midcentury hobbyist market. Although other paint-by-number companies came and went (as many as 35 companies in total), Craft Master formed the evolutionary backbone for that amateur craft lineage.
While paint-by-number kits were busy taking the hobbyist market by storm, the art world began to embrace different sorts of art that were equally outside the auspices of traditional painting. This populist sort of art took two tracks: the first was the Pop Art movement, with it soup cans and Marilyn Monroes, emphasizing the staying power of then-contemporary popular culture; the second, was the unabashed embrace of the amateur painter. If the amateur, without “proper” training, could simply feel the art coming to life, well, then, that was real art.
“In principle, the work of art has always been reproducible,” Walter Benjamin explained. “What man has made, man has always been able to make again.” But this begs the question, then, if a thing can be made and remade, what is its value? Is there any difference, then, between the original and the copy, if both are made in the image of the other? Provenance, it turns out, is the key. “Even with the perfect reproduction, one thing stands out: the here and now of the work of art — its unique existence in the place where it is at this moment,” Benjamin argues.
Paint-by-number embraced its kitschy genre with full abandon and has for decades. Paint-by-number came into its own at a peculiar point in American history — on one side, bounded by strict establishmentarianism and McCarthy-era rigidity; on the other side, it embraced art by an untrained but enthusiastic amateur. Even though paint-by-number kits are a dime a dozen to the tune of millions of dollars over the last six decades, there is a singularity about each one that positions each as a real bit of art — or at least that was the intent. There might be tens of thousands of copies of Dan Robbins’s paint-by-number kits, each one with the same scene stamped out, over and over.
The history of paint-by-number has proven to be art medium and metaphor, all rolled in to one.