Paint by numbers

Paint by number (or painting by numbers) describes kits having a board on which light blue or gray lines indicate areas to paint, each area having a number and a corresponding numbered paint to use. The kits were invented, developed and marketed in 1950 by Max S. Klein, an engineer and owner of the Palmer Paint Company of Detroit, Michigan, and Dan Robbins, a commercial artist.[1]

“paint-by-number” kits

Though I don’t know who first had the idea of painting by numbers, it was the Palmer Paint Company of Detroit, Michigan, that turned it into a craze in the early 1950s. By 1954, the company had sold some 12m “paint-by-number” kits in the US alone, each carrying the slogan “Every man a Rembrandt”. Each Palmer kit contained up to 90 pre-mixed, numbered paints, ready to be applied to numbered spaces on an accompanying canvas.

But this kit, from Tate Modern, had only five paints in it, suggesting that 50 years later no one would have enough patience to work in so many colours. I can say for certain that I wouldn’t have. Having never had the smallest aptitude for painting, I found it quite taxing even to apply six colours (the sixth being created by mixing three of the five paints).

New leisure

I had to concentrate hard to make sure the right colours were in the right spaces and that they didn’t overshoot them. Then I had to give every colour a second coat, increasing the potential for error. It took several hours and left me feeling quite drained of energy. With 90 paints, I would have got into an appalling muddle and have made an unspeakable mess all over the sitting room. I would certainly have given up the task long before the end.

In the prosperous postwar America of the 1950s, painting by numbers was promoted as an educative use of the “new leisure”. It also claimed to represent the American democratic ideal that anyone should be able to do anything, including paint. Hence the Rembrandt slogan.

“10% of the people who tried painting by numbers went on to do their own original work”

The early Palmer kits included representations of famous paintings, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, but my canvas showed a simple, stylised arrangement of flowers, entitled Bouquet, without any attribution to its creator. I get the feeling that painting by numbers today is supposed to be not so much educative as therapeutic, a way of calming one down.

Its critics in the 1950s attacked painting by numbers as a futile waste of time, a symptom of the mindless conformity gripping the nation’s life and culture. Its defenders, however, said it promoted an interest in art and introduced people to the techniques of painting. And this view was supported by the art retail trade, which estimated that 10% of the people who tried painting by numbers went on to do their own original work.

“I would stand back and look with some pride at what I had achieved”

To begin with, I found the task irksome and uncomfortable. But after a while the sheer monotony of it began to have a soothing effect, as my mind emptied itself of all thought and became rather pleasantly numb. Painting by numbers seemed to work as a kind of therapy. I also began to succumb to the delusion that I was a genuine artist engaged in an act of creation.

I would stand back and look with some pride at what I had achieved. I’d forget that I was a mere “number filler-inner” and think of myself instead as perhaps just a little inspired. I got a taste of what those original paint-by-number enthusiasts must have felt when, frustrated by their inability to paint anything on their own, they suddenly found themselves able to produce what could plausibly be mistaken from a distance for a competent work of art. That’s quite a satisfying feeling.
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