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Smithsonian exhibit recalls painting kits craze

Wednesday, June 20, 2001

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Fifty-two years ago, artist Dan Robbins borrowed an idea from Leonardo da Vinci and launched an American craze.

Even pop artist Andy Warhol got into the paint-by-numbers fad, with "Do-It-Yourself (Seascape)," 1963.

He called it painting by numbers. Just three years after Robbins and Palmer Show Card Paint Co. introduced paint-by-numbers kits to the American hobby market, consumer demand had created an $80 million annual business.

At the height of its popularity in the mid-1950s, millions of Americans, including President Dwight Eisenhower, singer Ethel Merman and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, were filling in pre-printed canvases with dabs of paint from tiny, numerically coded pots.

Pop-art artists like Andy Warhol used the paint-by-numbers fad as a source of material for their own work. In the early 1960s, Warhol produced a series of deliberately half-finished paint-by-numbers canvases titled "Do It Yourself."

The paint-by-numbers craze had a rallying cry of "Every man a Rembrandt!" But the craze eventually subsided, although it never totally vanished.

Today, Craft House International, based in Toledo and heir to the original Craft Master paint-by-numbers business, sells 71 different kits through hobby shops and mass merchandisers, such as Wal-Mart and Kmart.

"It's still a mainstay of our product line," said Karen Thompson, Craft House's marketing manager.

The original paint-by-numbers canvases -- painted or unpainted -- also have become hot collectible items, with some fetching hundreds of dollars from nostalgic baby boomers. Interest in paint-by-numbers is intense enough that one serious enthusiast, Larry Rubin of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., publishes a quarterly newsletter called "By the Numbers."

Computers have added a new dimension to the phenomenon. Several companies now offer to turn a photo or illustration into a numbered canvas and provide up to 42 different colors that a customer can use to fill it in.

And now the paint-by-numbers phenomenon is the subject of a new exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. The exhibition, much of which can be seen online at, celebrates this all-American success story.

It also investigates the "cultural fault line" it created between consumers who loved paint-by-numbers kits and critics such as one in American Artist magazine who complained it was art for "morons."

"What is striking about paint by numbers' popularity is the speed with which it became a vessel for anxieties about mass culture's intrusion into the well-cultured world of taste and social class," Smithsonian historian William "Larry" Bird writes in the exhibition catalog, "Paint By Number: The How-To Craze That Swept the Nation" (Princeton Architectural Press, $18.95).

"Before the close of the '50s, [painting by numbers] was made into a symbol of mass culture's corrosive influence upon taste," he says.

Bird emphatically states that paint-by-numbers "is not art." Instead, Bird says it "functioned as a compromise between genuine creativity and the responsibilities of homemaking and earning a living."

Many of today's baby boomers have fond memories of hours spent with paint-by-numbers kits, creating canvases featuring horses, kittens, fall scenes and ships at sea.

Even Warhol apparently tried his hand, while a child, at paint-by-numbers. The exhibit includes a mostly unfinished paint-by-numbers canvas that belonged to him, as well as the box of a pencil-by-numbers kit he used as a palette.

Asked why he believes paint-by-numbers struck such a responsive chord among Americans, Robbins, who started it all, said: "I think that paint-by-numbers is a vicarious art experience, something people do much in the same way they sing along with Frank Sinatra, play the music of George Gershwin or act in plays by Neil Simon.

"You're not creating anything, but you're getting as close as you can to participating in it," Robbins said.

When he first came up with the idea in 1949, Robbins was a new employee of the Palmer Show Card Paint Co. of Detroit, and the owner was looking for ways to increase the company's product line.

"I remembered hearing about how Leonardo da Vinci would challenge his own students or apprentices with creative assignments," Robbins recalls in his book, "Whatever Happened to Paint-By Numbers?" (Possum Hill Press, $16.95).

"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.

"What a great idea! Why not do the same thing for anyone who wants to paint their own picture but can't?" writes Robbins, who refers to himself as the "paint-by-numbers guru" and stresses that the actual system was created by da Vinci.

Making the idea of paint-by-numbers a reality, however, wasn't easy. First, Robbins had to convince company owner Max Klein that paint-by-numbers could make some money. To show how it would work, Robbins painted "Abstract No. 1," then broke it down into distinct areas of color and keyed each one to a particular paint color.

Klein hated "Abstract No. 1." But he loved the idea and gave Robbins the go-ahead to pursue a line of paint-by-number kits.

Once in hand in late 1950, they were rushed to stores in Detroit for a test run. But in their haste, Palmer employees had mixed up the paints for two different kits.

As Robbins recalls it, "'The Bullfighter' was wearing brown tights, waving a blue cape and fighting a green bull," while "'The Fisherman' had a red sky, yellow water and pink boats."

It wasn't a great start for the new product. But Klein and Robbins really believed they had a financial winner and decided to try to jump-start national sales of paint-by-numbers kits at the March 1951 Toy Fair.

To ensure that their efforts were at least partly successful, Klein actually spent about $500 paying people to buy kits at a Macy's demonstration.

It was probably unnecessary because the public loved the kits. From then on, Palmer was in a mad dash to keep up with demand, hiring dozens of artists to come up with new subjects and help the company stay ahead of the nearly three dozen competitors who sprang up.

By the mid-1950s, the craze was nationwide. In the White House, presidential appointments secretary Thomas Stephens distributed 20 paint-by-numbers kits to Eisenhower's Cabinet members and Oval Office visitors, some of whom assumed that the president himself expected them to complete them.

Stephens hung the results, including those done by Hoover and Nelson Rockefeller, then a special assistant to Eisenhower, in a West Wing corridor.

But as the market was flooded with kits, prices dropped, demand slowed and most of Palmer's competitors went out of business. The Palmer paint company survived, barely, after it was bought by the Donofrio family of Toledo. The Donofrios moved the company headquarters to Toledo, scaled back production and kept the business alive.

Over the years, the company has been sold several times and today operates as Craft House International. With a new interest in paint-by-number kits created by the Smithsonian exhibit, the company plans to rerelease some of the original kits over the next few years.

One already has been rereleased -- "Abstract No. 1." Although Klein hated it initially, "Abstract No. 1" eventually became a kit but never sold too well. Craft House and the Smithsonian thought the painting's honored place in the history of paint-by-numbers made it a good first kit to rerelease.

"It was the first prototype," Robbins said. "It was a little Picasso, a little Bracque and a lot of Dan Robbins."

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