Paint by numbers
May 1, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
We’ve spoken about the benefits of having a hobby before, but today I’d like to talk about one man who started a revolution in the 1950’s hobby world. I’m speaking of the paint by numbers craze, a phenomenon that lives on with adult coloring books. Sadly, earlier this month we lost the visionary Dan Robbins, whose efforts empowered budding, mid-century artists nationwide. The story behind paint by numbers starts shortly after World War II and involved some pretty famous inspiration (which we’ll get to momentarily). After the war, Dan found himself working at the Palmer Paint Company in Detroit. His day job involved packaging design and on one particular day his boss dropped in with a simple request. He wanted to create a product that would appeal to the burgeoning market of adult hobbyists. Was Dan up to the task? You bet!
You may be wondering – why all this fuss over hobbies and crafting? During the global conflict, many hobbies were on a forced hiatus – materials were rare and every usable item had to go toward the war effort. Woodworking and metalworking classes were cancelled and even sewing circles felt the strain. Once the war ended and the country took a collective sigh of relief, people felt like they could go on with their healing. Creativity plays a very important role in this process and painting, in particular, can be a fun way of relieving tension.
Dan was determined to help America have a little fun again and looked to none other than Leonardo da Vinci for guidance. In his own words: “He (Leonardo) 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.” With this concept of an organized creative process, Dan set about creating paint by number kits. These were published under the name Craft Master and the very first scenes were Robbins originals! (According to his kids, seascapes were his favorite and therefore play a prominent role in those initial kits.)
As the kits grew in popularity (over 20 million sold by the mid 1950’s), their marketing prowess grew as well. The strategy was simple: give the people what they want. Eager artists from all walks of life would write to Craft Masters with requests for subject matter and the company would reply with the most in-demand scenes! It seems the very popularity that created its elevated status would also prove to be its downfall. By the late 1950s many other companies flooded the market with their own paint by number kits. Soon, the home-trained artist had a plethora of options. As we all know, artists can be fickle – so within a few years Craft Masters faced bankruptcy. Dan, on the other hand, went on to continued commercial success (even having a hand in the iconic Happy Meals packaging design)!
Naturally there is a whole field of debate around the paint by numbers phenomenon and many hard-line art critics feel that this sort of mass production isn’t artistic enough. But from my view, anything that helps you feel excited about picking up a paint brush and accomplishing something is valuable. In time, you may find yourself confident and comfortable enough to venture off the path and into freestyle creations. The important thing is to show up, have fun, and create. As any hobbyist will tell you, you end up learning an awful lot about yourself along the way. Dan Robbins gave us that vintage lesson and it’s one that doesn’t go out of style!