Thank Dan Robbins for the Paint-by-Number Craze

Robbins, who died this month at 93, came up with the kits that let millions of people try their hand at painting

paint by number
Getty Images

In the 1950s, the most popular artwork to grace the walls of an American household wasn't a Pollack, a de Kooning or a Rothko. Instead, odds are it would have been a paint-by-number picture.

Dan Robbins, the man behind the cultural phenomenon, died on Monday, April, 1. He was 93, reports John Seewer for the Associated Press.

Robbins came up with the concept for paint-by-number kits in the late 1940s while working for the Palmer Paint Company. Believe it or not, his concept was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci. “I remembered hearing that Leonardo used numbered background patterns for his students and apprentices, and I decided to try something like that,” Robbins recounted in a 2004 interview.

His boss Max Klein, had tasked him with creating a children’s coloring book, but he wasn’t expecting Robbins to return with a Cubist still-life à la Leonardo. Klein did not take to that first attempt, but saw potential in a more commercially viable version of the concept and asked Robbins for more.

In 1951, Palmer Paint began selling the kits under the Craft Master brand. Robbins created the first few dozen himself, drawing on subjects like landscapes, kittens and horses.

By 1954, the company had sold more than 12 million of the kits, according to a 2001 exhibition on the paint-by-number phenomenon by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Each kit included two brushes, paints with numbers on them, and an outline image stamped on a canvas-covered board with numbers indicating where the splashes of paint should go.

The popular kits, which declared “Every Man a Rembrandt!,” became an accessible way for the public to follow their creative urges and create frameable finished products.

“I know I’m not much of an artist and never will be,” one fan told the magazine American Artist. “I’ve tried in vain repeatedly to draw or paint something recognizable. . . . Why oh why didn’t you or someone else tell me before this how much fun it is to use these wonderful ‘paint by number’ sets?”

Even the White House got in on the act. Eisenhower’s presidential appointment secretary Thomas Edwin Stephens passed out the kits to cabinet secretaries and visitors in 1954, displaying some of the finished products in a West Wing corridor.

The paint-by-number crowd had very specific tastes. Abstract sets didn’t perform well, but landmarks like the Matterhorn couldn’t stay on the shelves. Of course, for those reasons, the art crowd poo-pooed the whole trend, calling it symptomatic of the conformity of the time. “I don't know what America is coming to,” one critic told American Artist, “when thousands of people, many of them adults, are willing to be regimented into brushing paint on a jig-saw miscellany of dictated shapes and all by rote. Can’t you rescue some of these souls-or should I say ‘morons’?”

Retailers, however, noticed that the kits were acting as a gateway for many people who had never practiced art before. Many moved from paint-by-number kits to more personal projects. As the 2001 exhibition noted, the rising income and shorter work weeks of the 1950s afforded many people with a novelty: leisure time to fill with hobbies like art.

Eventually the craze died down, especially as television dominated free time in the late 1950s. By 1959, Klein sold Craft Master, which he’d turned into a separate company following the success of the paint-by-number kits.

Robbins continued on as a designer once the paint-by-number frenzy faded. According to Seewer of the AP, he was never phased by the critics of his creations. He had his own perspective on it. “I never claim that painting by number is art,” he later said. “But it is the experience of art, and it brings that experience to the individual who would normally not pick up a brush, not dip it in paint. That’s what it does.”

That instinct is with us still. Chriss Swaney at Antique Trader reports that sales of traditional paint-by-number kits are up, and the idea has found a niche in art therapy work. Add to that the recent massive popularity of paint nights and paint-and-sip businesses in which participants follow the brushstrokes of an instructor to create the same image, and it's clear that Americans still subscribe to Robbins' idea: that every man—and woman—can be their own Rembrandt.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.