A History of Paint by Numbers

A History of Paint by Numbers

Every paint-by-number kit, old or new, is a time capsule. It preserves not only a craft forever associated with the postwar era of origins, but a hopeful vision of modern life that persisted for decades. Above all, the paint-by-number method and style evoked the 1950s, an era when Americans admired their favorite views through the wraparound windshields of tail-finned cars, the picture windows of suburban split-levels, and the black-and-white screens of mahogany console televisions. In every vista, the hopeful glow of progress ("our most important product," as Ronald Reagan intoned on TV's G.E. Theater) colored a domestic landscape blessed, it seemed, with limitless energy, technological expertise, economic prosperity, and social mobility. When mush-room clouds, the Iron Curtain, juvenile delinquents, and other specters on the evening newscast threatened to darken this sunny vision, one could switch to the brighter side of life by turning a knob on the Philco-or by taking up an engaging hobby. Besides owning a TV, hi-fi, and labor-saving appliances that would have been the stuff of fantasy before World War Ⅱ, the modern household enjoyed access to new and improved recreational activities. None of these stirred greater enthusiasm than painting by the numbers.

Thanks to shorter workweeks, longer vacations, and a can-do spirit fueled by victory overseas, citizens in every walk of life felt entitled to take leisure time seriously. Rosie the Riveter may have traded her overalls for a gingham apron, and G.l. Joe replaced his khakis with a gray flannel suit, but they were still eager to roll up their sleeves—as weekend warriors in the cause of home improvement, family fun, and self-expression. A tacit bonus, of course, was the envy of less enterprising friends, neighbors, and relatives. For if "togetherness" was a watchword of the decade, so too was "one-upmanship," a term coined in 1952. Cheered on by Madison Avenue and armed with all manner of supermarket mixes, power tools, magazine patterns, and kits, ordinary folk couldn't wait to meet any challenge.

Some would-be artists enrolled in Famous Artists Schools correspondence courses; others watched Jon Gnagy's televised art classes and bought his brand-name art supplies in order to sketch along with him. But for those bent on instant fulfillment, paint-by-numbers filled the bill. Inexpensive enough to suit Everyman's budget (kits cost as little as a dollar), the standard package included one or more "canvases" with color-coded outlines, a brush or two, a palette of paints in small containers, and step-by-step instructions. "Everything you need," vowed a typical ad. "You can paint a beautiful picture the first time you try!" The surge of consumers eager to try this at home amazed even paint-by-numbers' most optimistic boosters. Between 1952 when the craze erupted, and 1954 when it peaked, North Americans bought 12 million kits—and soon, the fad spread to Europe and the Far East. The boom was largely generated by Detroit paint manufacturer Max Klein and artist Dan Robbins. Having developed the kit idea in 1949 as a means of boosting sales for Klein's Palmer Paint Company, which then made meager profits selling poster paints to schools, the two men had a tough time finding interested retailers.

Where Else But Macy's?

The breakthrough came two years later, when Macy's department store in New York City some-what reluctantly let Palmer stage a demonstration of its Craft Master line of paint-by-number kits during the American International Toy Show. The display sold out, word of mouth roused demand, and almost overnight, paint-by-number sets became the hottest item in department stores, hobby shops, and dime stores nationwide. By 1954 Palmer Paint's staff had swelled from a dozen employees to 1,200, manning an assembly line that cranked out 50,000 kits a day (both Klein and Robbins had worked for General Motors). This success prompted more than 30 competing firms to enter the field. The rewards were enormous: total annual revenue in the mid-'50s exceeded $20 million.

The concept of pictures with color-keyed guidelines seems so elementary that it's hard to imagine a time when paint-by-numbers made headlines as a novelty, which it did in the early days. Even now, with refreshing modesty, Dan Robbins disclaims credit as the hobby's "inventor." In his 1997 memoir, Whatever Happened to Paint-by-Numbers: A Humorous Personal Account of What It Took to Make Anyone an 'Artist,' he cited Leonardo da Vinci as his primary inspiration. Robbins remembered hearing in art school that Leonardo had drawn segments of large paintings for pupils to fill in with numerically coded colors, after which the master applied finishing touches. Kits utilizing a similar idea—with letters of the alphabet instead of numbers serving as the key—had been manufactured for children since the 1920s. The original twist of Palmer Paint's Craft Master paint-by-numbers, and a similar product pioneered by another company, Picture Craft, was the decision to target grown-up hobbyists in addition to kids. As Robbins later explained, "The concept was that adults were just grown-up children who still liked to color."

An expanded range in ages called for a shift in the subject matter. Comic-strip bronco-busters just wouldn't do. Robbins, then in his mid-20s, aimed for an effect that his contemporaries would find arty. The first image he showed Klein was a vaguely Cubist still-life—"a little Picasso, a little Braque, and a lot of Robbins"-which he dubbed Abstract No. One. Klein said, "Um, I hate it! Abstracts are for people who call themselves artists but can't paint worth a damn!" Sure that Mr. and Mrs. America shared his opinion, Klein sent Robbins (who before long divided his duties with a team of artists) back to the drawing board and easel to design realistic tableaux of kittens and hunting dogs, landscapes and flower arrangements, ballerinas and bullfighters that could take pride of place above a sofa, a mantelpiece, or the TV. Each paint-by-number manufacturer devised its own variations on an industry-wide recipe: a solid base of calendar art leavened with dollops of Impressionism and a sprinkling of Disney fantasy. Even a dash of travel-poster exotica couldn't disguise the down-home redolence of Grandma Moses and Norman Rockwell. Less intentional, probably, was an occasional hint of the sharper edge of other native talents: Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and Edward Hopper.

abstract no.one

Look Who's Painting

For most intended buyers of paint-by-number kits, such artistic credentials couldn't compete with sheer celebrity. The amateur painting gained enormous prestige as a creative outlet when word got out that Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower found happiness at an easel during their off-hours. In 1954 President Eisenhower's appointment secretary, Thomas Edwin Stephens, staged an invitational West Wing art show that featured original Ikes alongside paint-by-number canvases signed by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge, bandleader, and kitchen-blender inventor Fred Waring, and Broadway star Ethel Merman. On the West Coast, Hollywood boasted off-camera painters such as Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda, Jose Ferrer, Gene Kelly, and Kirk Douglas.

Paint-by-number kits invited homemakers and businessmen to indulge in romantic fantasies by choosing their personal favorites from a large menu of picture subjects. During a spare moment before the kids burst in from school, Mom might recapture a girlhood dream of her own by brushing rosy highlights onto Ballet Intermission. After dinner, Dad could relive the last time he saw Paris, as a soldier in uniform, as he added a scarlet stripe to the tricolor in Arc de Triomphe. On a Sunday afternoon, the whole family could strengthen spiritual ties by collaborating on The Last Supper.


Hobby retailers welcomed a wholesome pastime with an appeal to both sexes and all age groups and intimated that the family that paints together is the picture of happiness. Picture Craft enlisted the entire Nelson clan —Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky—to endorse paint-by-number sets. Palmer Paint advertisements matched parents and children to sets of varying degrees of difficulty. The most basic, "Easy as 1-2-3," was deemed suitable for Junior, while the most advanced, the Deluxe and Super Craft Master kits, went to Mother and Father.

The wide spectrum of paint palettes in these sets, which could contain as many as 90 little pots, enabled the stylish homemaker to coordinate art to the color scheme of any room. Varied picture dimensions let her scale paintings to the available space. Most pictures measured between 8 by 10 inches and 18 by 24 inches. Ambitious painters, however, could tackle 24-by-36- inch behemoths like Super Craft Master's Conflict at Sea. Some kit manuals gave tips on integrating paintings into home decor: "Your paintings, framed and hung smartly, can make your home brimful of personality." Supplementary kits for frames were conveniently geared to fit standard picture sizes. Homelike displays of finished paint-by-numbers inside department stores, movie theater lobbies, hobby supply shops, and a traveling Craft Master Artmobile demonstrated pleasing arrangements of framed pictures on a wall. True devotees could add complementary accents with kits for paint-by-number tool trays, wastebaskets, and magazine holders.

Down But Not Out

Despite technical improvements and innovations like individual portrait kits based on customers' snapshots, paint-by-numbers had lost the luster of novelty by the late 1950s. Sales to adults steadily dropped. The decline resulted from a combination of overexposure, a change in taste, and the ascendance of television watching as a substitute for more active pastimes. By the mid-1960s, manufacturers had successfully redirected their marketing to children and teenagers with pictorial tributes to Bambi, Zorro, Frankenstein's monster, the Beatles, and other idols of the bubblegum set.

But even as paint-by-numbers' popularity had begun to wane, it caught the eye of a budding Pop artist, Andy Warhol. His adoration of mass-produced icons, his training as a commercial artist, and his boredom with Abstract Expressionism (the reigning art movement of the day) made Warhol just the man to champion paint-by-numbers as a creative medium. Sometimes, with deadpan insouciance, he only partially filled in hobby-shop canvases, leaving numbered blanks exposed (and intentionally or not, mimicking the unfinished state of countless projects abandoned through the years by amateurs who lost interest or patience).

For his Do It Yourself series of 1962, Warhol drew his outlines on canvas and paper, which he numbered and colored with paint, crayon, and paper cutouts. Contradicting standard kit instructions, which stressed the importance of covering numbers with paint, he occasionally applied prominent numerals on top of colored areas—as if to make sure no one missed the point. Since then, others have echoed paint-by-numbers in magazine covers, advertising graphics, fabric patterns, store window displays, and art pieces as diverse as Jeff Koons's Easyfun painted collages of 1999 and Don Baum's more recent houselike sculptures. Few homages to '50s prototypes come labeled as explicitly as artist Paul Bridgewater's Abstract Paint By Number Kit series of 1978. The irony of its subject wasn't lost on Andy Warhol, who purchased one of Bridgewater's kits, or on Dan Robbins. He still likes to tell of the anonymous hobbyist who in 1952 submitted a paint-by-number version of Robbins's Abstract No. One (the very design Max Klein trashed) to a San Francisco art show and won third prize.

Today, various adaptations of paint-by-numbers to the computer's virtual easel demonstrate the concept's perennial allure. Cyberwise children who've never seen the inside of a hobby shop routinely download computer images to color. For them, the keyboard is an inexhaustible palette; the mouse is an all-purpose brush. In a digital throwback to Craft Master's mail-order portrait scheme of the '50s (then too labor-intensive to turn a profit), Websites now urge painters-by-number to send in their scanned snapshots of loved ones or of favorite scenes, for conversion into color-coded outlines on textured paper that's ready to paint. Although these and other online resources have given the pastime a boost, supplementing the steady market for conventional kits, there's no sign of anything like the recreational painting craze of the 1950s.

Old Paintings, New Fans

The big news—especially for people who remember the days not long ago when paint-by-numbers castoffs moldered in garages and attics—is the ever-growing market for vintage paintings and kits as collectibles. A dramatic reappraisal of their aesthetic appeal and market value began in the '90s, signaled by a controversial show at a prominent New York gallery: 40 Years of Paint-By-Number Paintings from the Collection of Michael O'Donoghue. A writer for Saturday Night Live, O'Donoghue became the mentor for a new wave of connoisseurs, which has only gathered force since then. It didn't take an expert to spot the charm that many vintage examples possess, or to see that they were cheap and plentiful. Canny decorators loved the chic yet playful effect the paintings created in combination with again-fashionable Midcentury Modern furniture. As interest spread through flea markets, antique malls, thrift shops, garage sales, and online auctions, the supply of old paint-by-numbers dwindled, and prices skyrocketed.

The antique dealer who, ten years ago, had a strict "No paint-by-numbers need apply" policy is now apt to greet a charming kit ballerina with open arms and slap a $60 tag On the back of her "period" frame. Then again, the occasional estate or yard sale still yields a 50-cent wonder.

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

When several collectors zero in on the same subject, especially one in limited supply, prices ascend. Expect to pay top dollar, for example, if you fancy a Mona Lisa of a certain age. You might be bidding against the midwestern attorney who is said to own no fewer than six interpretations of Leonardo's lady, and you should brace yourself to spend at least $160. Other collectors can't get enough of Gainsborough's Blue Boy. In 2001, a version of Dan Robbins's Abstract No. One sold on eBay for $500. Today, many collectors would consider this a bargain. On a different cultural front, portraits of baseball players, TV stars, movie monsters, and pop singers also have loyal followings. One Beatles fan paid $4,000 for four kits, each containing a never-painted portrait of one Of the Fab Four.

Entire kits in their original boxes generate keen interest, especially if the manufacturer's clear plastic wrap remains intact. A finished painting in a vintage wooden frame has added appeal; better yet is a frame from a Craft Master framing kit. Given its rarity and age, an oil painting on the genuine canvas that came rolled inside early kits often commands a higher price than a later acrylic on canvas-textured cardboard. Size affects value, as well. Even though landscapes make up the largest, generally least expensive subject category, a giant 36-inch-wide Super Craft Master April in Paris commands a proportionately oversized price.

As far as we know, there's only one Picture Craft Swiss Village painted and signed by J. Edgar Hoover; it's in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, along with Ethel Merman's Craftint The Old Mill and Nelson Rockefeller's Picture Craft Old Mission. You're far more likely to find vintage kit pictures signed by unknowns, but these exude their own mystique, like the names and initials stitched onto antique samplers. In symbolizing their makers' pride, they prompt us to imagine a particular set of fingers at work, and a face intently focused on the task at hand.

Improbable though it might have seemed back when paint-by-numbers appeared to be nothing more than a gimmicky fad, scholars and curators have put the hobby under history's magnifying glass and discovered unexpected layers of meaning. In 1994, art historian Karel Ann Marling wrote an illuminating study in her book As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s. Seven years later, in a major exhibition at The Smithsonian Institution, Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s, curator William L. Bird Jr. won his subject new respect nationwide. To their astonishment, crowds of museumgoers who came to laugh at old funhouse mirrors found uncannily clear reflections winking back at them. And like them, the longer we look at these pictures, the more we find to admire.