Almost everyone knows what a paint by numbers kit is. Perhaps you’ve encountered those coloring books marked with numbers that correspond to a particular color back in your childhood days; and even those mandala coloring books can be attributed to these kits. The trend has come and gone ever since it began. But last year, the craze became stronger because of the COVID-19 pandemic where the world suddenly stopped its original routine wherein most people became confined to their homes to diminish the rate of COVID-19 infections. Thus, the internet made these kits even more popular. It can be seen almost everywhere on social media and people are raging about how fun and easy to use the kits are. Interestingly, it is a mystery for many paint by numbers enthusiasts as to how and where paint by numbers started due to the hundreds of companies that offer these beloved pastime hobby kits. So today, let’s go back in time by discussing the interesting history of one of the most beloved art kits of all time.
How and where paint by numbers started can be attributed to the original and first brand that started the craze called Craft Master, which was founded by Dan Robbins during the 1950s. Complete with the basic supplies that will aid a beginner to learn the basics of painting, these kits became popular in the postwar era of the 1950s due to the increased leisure time of the people at the time. While critics are not exactly profound with the idea of painting by numbers due to its “conformity,” “kitschiness,” and “repetition,” more people still celebrate the idea because it gives people the experience of how it’s like to be a painter. Moreso, it allows people to create something that they’ve never done before, including beautiful paintings that are displayable on their house wall.
Where Did Paint by Numbers Start?
The humble origin of these kits began at the Palmer Show Card Paint Company which can be found in Detroit, Michigan.
Around 1949, when Dan Robbins, the inventor of the first Paint by Numbers kits was hired at the company, he was initially tasked with illustrating children’s books. Some time after that, the company’s founder, Max Klein, tasked Robbins to sell more paint and as a result, Robbins tried to generate different hobby kit ideas that would sell more paint products. Hence, Paint by Numbers kits were born.
The Inspiration Behind Paint by Numbers
Dan Robbins revealed in his memoir entitled, Whatever Happened to Paint-by-Numbers: A Humorous Personal Account of What It Took to Make Anyone an 'Artist', the technique he employed was not entirely his own creation nor was it entirely original because he based the concept on Leonardo da Vinci’s teaching system which he used with his students for painting lessons. Robbins recalled that, “I remembered hearing about how Leonardo da Vinci would challenge his own students or apprentices with creative assignments… 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.”
The Making of the First Paint by Numbers Kits
The initial plan for these kits was that the designs would be based on the abstract expressionism movement, which was the emerging art movement at the time. The styles of the designs were inspired by abstract painters such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Brasque.
In order to create each kit, Robbins would first paint an original abstract artwork design. Once his painting was completed, he would place a plastic sheet on the top of the canvas and then outline the painting, creating different shapes and segments based on the hues and colors. Afterwards, he would indicate a number on each shape that would correspond to a particular color. The first Paint by Numbers canvas design ever made is called Abstract No. 1, which is a still life abstract painting of fruits, dedicated to the popular abstract movement.
What the Public Thought About the Kits
The initial response of the consumers about the original kits wasn’t satisfactory as the concept of painting abstract designs were not so appealing to them. However, the concept of painting-by-numbers itself was appealing in itself so the company strategized another way to boost the sales of the kits. To do so, the company created more realistic designs instead of abstract objects. These designs include peaceful landscapes, nature sceneries, latin figures, and animal images.
As the kits gained popularity over time, the once known Palmer Show Card Paint Company was renamed to Craft Master and grew its employees to 800 people as the demands of the kits rose each day. Sales of the kits took off in 1951 and it became a cultural phenomena in countries like the United States, England, Germany, France, Italy, and many more.
People were happy about the kits as they allowed them to paint, even if they had no background knowledge or skills in painting. Four years later, in 1955, 20 million kits were sold in America alone, filling empty walls with beautiful paintings.
Comments from the Art World
Despite the positive response it gained from the mass consumers around the world, the art world itself wasn’t too keen with the concept of painting by numbers. Critics and real artists disliked the way it simplified the creative process of painting because of its repetition and conformity.
Many critics find the kits uncreative because they feel it’s not an actual “painting” as it can be copied a million times so it cannot be classified as a real form of art. Regardless of the negative reviews from some critics, artists such as Andy Warhol displayed its support for the kits and he was even a collector of PBN canvases himself.
Love it or hate it, these kits have become a part of the world’s culture as millions of people enjoy using them and millions of canvases are displayed around the world. Thus, there are even people who are avid collectors of the kits so they are, indeed, a cultural phenomena. We hope that this history about how and where paint by numbers started gave you more information about the kits.