By the Numbers

Max and I were lounging and text-sassing our friend Leslie of dog portrait fame. The topic was art, specifically which famous artist would have best captured how we each looked. Since we have never met it was an exercise in imagination.

She thought I might look like Van Gogh in his 1889 self-portrait about which the Musée d’Orsay says “the model’s immobility contrasts with the undulating hair and beard, echoed and amplified in the hallucinatory arabesques of the background.”

Quick somebody hand me the Geek-to-Normal Person dictionary.

How Leslie and I think of each other.

In return, I told her that I figured her for a Modigliani but with a shorter, non-pencil neck. We both agreed that her dog Toby and Max would best be drawn by Fernando Botero given their long holiday season of over eating.

How we view our dogs.

That got me to thinking about a product that was near ubiquitous in my childhood but which I haven’t thought about in donkey’s years, which is a lot of years. I tried to describe the product to Max but my explanation left him as flummoxed as a Mormon at a craps table.

Of course I’m talking about “Paint-By-Number” kits.

No one would ever have guessed “you painted it by yourself.”
Thanks, Pinterest, for the photo.

The paint-by-number phenomenon was conceived in 1950 by an artist named Dan Robbins who worked for the Palmer Paint Company of Detroit.

In his 1998 memoir, Dan said that he based his concept on Leonardo da Vinci’s teaching system of numbering sections of his canvases for apprentices to complete. “I remembered hearing about how Leonardo da Vinci would challenge his own students or apprentices with creative assignments,” Robbins recalled.

Classic Kit from 1963

“He would hand out numbered patterns indicating where certain colors should be used in specific projects such as under-painting, preliminary background colors or some lesser works that did not require his immediate attention.”

Later, this approach became known as “The Da Vinci Code.” No, it didn’t. I made that last part up; the rest is true.

To create each kit, Robbins first painted an original artwork, and then placed a plastic sheet over it and outlined the shapes for each hue and shade. Paint kit box tops proclaimed, “Every man a Rembrandt!” which seems like a slap in the face for old Leonardo, but whatever.

The first paint-by-number kit. It flopped because budding artists did not like abstract paint images. Who knew?

Paint-by-number was a huge success right from the start. Distribution of paint-by-number kits under the Craft Master label began in San Francisco in 1951 and within three years chalked up sales of some twelve million kits.

Paint-by-number was a classic case of a product appearing at the exact right moment. Propelled by postwar prosperity, increased leisure time, and an emerging democratized notion of art, paint-by-number – a mix between a coloring book and painting on a canvas – grew into a popular pastime for all ages.

Your typical paint-by-number family of the 50s.
Notice they cheaped-out on the boy. He only gets the $1 set.

After sweeping across the US, paint-by-number sales expanded in the 1950s to markets in Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy, and Norway. Part of the success internationally was because Palmer Paint tailored paint-by-number subjects to national tastes. Craft Master kits in England, for example, featured Shakespeare’s birthplace and Ann Hathaway’s cottage.

Popular French subjects included familiar Parisian landmarks and street scenes as well as pictures of smelly cheese and rude waiters. OK, you caught me, I made that last part up. Hon, hon.

Per Guinness World Records, the largest paint-by-numbers measured 45.72 m (150 ft) X 81.3 m (266 ft 8 in)3,717 m² (40,009.29 ft²) and was created at the Punjab Youth Festival in Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan, on 14 March 2013. The More You Know.

Not everyone was thrilled with the paint-by-number concept. Intellectuals attributed its popularity to an American penchant for mindless conformity. “I don’t know what America is coming to,” one writer complained, “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’?” Harsh, brother, harsh.

On the other hand, one art critic ruefully noted that more “number pictures” hung in American homes than original works of art. Maybe that was because paint-by-numbers offered affordable amusement, a sense of accomplishment, and home decoration with a handmade look and liberated families from the sense that art was unapproachable except for those with advanced education.

Some art critics were less than impressed by fine paintings like this. I know, that’s hard to believe.

Dan Robbins wasn’t overly concerned about the negative response of art critics, because he achieved his dream of bringing art to the masses. He wrote, “I never claim that painting by number is art. 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.”

Despite prognostications to the contrary, paint-by-number flourished during the huge social transition that occurred as Americans’ source of visual experiences switched to television in the 1950s. Indeed, by the end of the 50s, paint-by-number seamlessly merged with the Pop Art culture of the 1960s and grew into a symbol of mass culture defined by market surveys and popular opinion polling.

Finished paint-by-number works hung proudly in homes across the country. President Eisenhower’s presidential appointment secretary, Thomas Edwin Stephens, curated a gallery of paint-by-number pieces made by administration officials in the White House.

It’s not clear if this was one of the paint-by-number kits curated at the White House. If not, it should have been.

Always the survivor, paint-by-number continued through successive decades and by the 1990s attained the status of a “collectible.” There is an excellent summary of the history and significance paint-by-number prepared by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History which held a paint-by-number exhibition. Trust me, if you hang around long enough you, too, will become a collectible.

But, alas, the Palmer Paint Company of Detroit did not get to enjoy the full longevity of its famous products. At the start, the company quickly grew to 800 employees and was working around the clock to ship 50,000 sets a day. In 1955, it sold upwards of 20 million kits in the USA alone. It was so successful it couldn’t keep up with demand and after a series of management challenges (often described as “dumb financial moves”) the company went bankrupt. Other companies stepped in to perpetuate the paint-by-number phenomenom.

Not all paint-by-number efforts produce laudable results. Thanks to the loyal readers of Max’s blog for providing access to their personal collections.

I did several paint-by-number kits as a kid. The results were uniformly dreadful. The deer looked like dogs, the dogs looked rabid hyenas (dare you to click that one, go on) and the graceful little French danseuse had a hunched back that would put the Elephant Man to shame all because I screwed up between #3 and #13, so sue me, I was just a little kid, I did my best, you judgmental bast…OK, get a grip, Tom. Paint me a picture of where they hurt you.

Today, there are a plethora of paint-by-number kit choices available at the Amazon online store. In fact, the variety is mind boggling. According to the Goog, the most popular paint-by-number kits are Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and “Starry Night, ” Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and Monet’s “Water Lilies.”

“Sunflowers.” We’re told this is the #1 paint-by-number image.

One of my personal faves is the Black Velvet Paint by Number Kit – I’m not kidding about this – which produces naked lady and Elvis images worthy of the backwall of a Tijuana dive bar. No, I’m not posting a photo or link to the naked ladies; move along to the cute Golden Retriever, you perv.

Tickle his nose like that and he’ll sneeze all over you.
I don’t believe that is an actual paint-by-number dog portrait, do you?

There are even websites where you send in a photo – let’s say a dog, for example – and they return a paint-by-number kit of your puppy. All for under $40. This could destroy the career of someone who paints dogs for a living and that’s why I’m not giving away any more specifics.

The good part of Maltese paint-by-number is that they all look alike.
“No! We do NOT all look alike!”

Personally I’d like to see some more choices featuring Fernando Botero’s works.

Fernando Botero, “The AJF and I After The Holidays,”
Acrylic on canvas, 2022 Paint-by-number, lots and lots of numbers and gallons of paint.

54 replies

  1. I think you’ve found that perfect gift idea for 11 year old twins you’ve been looking for!

    Amazing that people in the 50s had no necks.

    (If you had linked to the About page on my site, my self portrait is the background image.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Be nice. You know darn well I could have taken the Modigliani comparison in a different direction. I checked the About page and now assume you resemble a Westie or Cat. I guess some folk have no necks but I make it up by having multiple chins.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Wow you described my childhood. I was a fan of the black velvet psychedelic posters that were painted with markers. Guess psychedelic and paint would have been dangerous in the 70s. Was that Mr. Bean peeking out from Mona Lisa’s face? Downright scary. Great post as usual! Sweet Max is right, he’s one of a kind!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am not surprised by your fondness for psychedelic posters given your attraction to woodchuck hats. Yup, that was a Mr. Bean / Mona Lisa art meld which I agree is very disturbing.


  3. Are paint by number kits really all that different from attending a wine and painting class where a teacher walks everyone through the painting of a specific photo??The only thing keeping them from being identical is artistic skill level and, I’m guessing, wine consumption.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. The Black Velvet Elvis paintings are alive and well in the South. They usually hang from a specially constructed clothesline in the parking lot of whatever building has recently been torn down. It’s called Art a la Rustic.
    Fernando Botero–I love his work. You and the AJF look lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the compliment. I like the AJF underarm hair, it’s appealing don’cha think? I imagine in your neck of the woods there are black velvet paintings of pelicans. Have you considered doing some black velvet paint-by-numbers of the cats? It would be a nice collection, large but nice. The best black velvet Elvis will always be the one with a tear falling from his eye.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hahaha! I remember my grandma doing paint-by-number! Her finished work looked like Grandma Moses’ pictures. Then I started doing it. I loved it. Finished paintings were atrocious! And yes, black velvet painting.

    Next was setting my easel up in front of our 12” Philco TV (that was in a 35’ cabinet!) and taking painting lessons with Jon Gnagy. Those were good times. It would bore the living daylights out of kids today, but at least we didn’t play endless games seeing how many people we could kill.

    I just love the painting of you and the AJF. So realistic!

    And Max, you definitely are one of a kind. Even a paint-by-number kit can’t duplicate you. 💕

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah yes, the Philco – back in the days when TV was furniture! My efforts at paint-by-number were also pitiful. Maybe because I am so obsessed with precision that there was no blending of the lines at all. Or maybe just because of a total lack of talent. I’ll let the AJF know you like her image.


  6. I’m convinced the main reason for Palmer Paint/Dan Robbins epic failure was the lack of ‘happy trees.’ I was surprised to see a whole slew of paint by number kits at the local craft story recently. And yes, the ‘Sunflowers’ kit still seems to be popular. Those kits remind me of the grandkids ‘refrigerator’ art collection that I still have. I’m waiting for the perfect moment to share those budding artists’ work…probably just before they walk down the aisle. 😈

    Liked by 1 person

    • I watched some Bob Ross years back and thought, “Hmmm, maybe I could do that.” Well, no. My happy little accidents were desperate cries for intervention. It’s hard to fully explain just how bad my attempts at art come out. Yeah, I think it’s a great idea o save up embarrassing evidence and then present i to the grandspawn at the most public and humiliating moments. I’ve always kept a special collection of naked baby photos just for that reason. Usually the threat of revealing them is enough to secure compliance from the progeny.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Of course I’d like to think I look like, say, David’s portrait of Mme. Recamier. But, well, Botero would likely do most of me, leaving a Van Gogh wannabe to do the crazy hair. Sad but true. Or we could make it a paint-by-number and I could do the crazy hair myself. I used to like doing those. Maybe it’s time to pick up a brush again.😎

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I envision you as Mme. Recamier being all kinds of louche as you lounge on your Directoire style sofa in a simple Empire line dress. You have a lot of wall space just crying out for some paint-by-number art. Of course there is Jacques who would love a dog portrait. Your home and property are so pretty that they’d be good subjects, a whole bunch better than the usual and overdone Paris landmark collection. You could even paint-by-number your tomato crop. Oh wait, you can’t because it was so pitiful that there’s little to paint. 😈.


  8. So much to unpack in this. I initially believed that you had commissioned a portrait of your pooch, but I guess they do all look alike, as you say. The beauty of my hybrid pound dogs is that they are so unique in their uncertain collaborations. The vets can only throw a vague “terrier” label at one of them. Also, I feel personally attacked by the Botero images, although my pits are always smooth. As another reader said, velvet Elvi are alive and well down here. I grew up eating at Chuy’s, a Tex-Mex restaurant that covered the walls with said velvet Elvi, and had to accrue more with each new location. The newest one near our home has him even playing piano. And speaking of vato, which is commonly heard at Chuy’s, that’s quite an odd name for a paint by numbers site. The dog one you posted of the pair has a creepy quality inherent in most of them, a lack of depth or something. I think of Stepford wives, but that makes zero sense. Just an overall wrongness. I will say that I have a friend who STILL does paint by numbers pics and posts them to Facebook. Also, she has feathered hair and still wears velvet, so it’s consistent with such an artistic pursuit. Lastly, the rabid hyena is terrifying.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vato, eh? Isn’t that Santana? “Oye Como Vato?” Of course not. But interesting that there is no real female equivalent for “vato. ” Saying “vata” will get ya killed since it’s basically like “hooker” whereas “vato” is more like dude or homeboy. Oh well. I looked and looked but never found a paint-by-number that was genuinely attractive; even the best were cheesier than a Wisconsin barn. I wish I had a Chuy’s here. Glad you clicked on the hyena – the only person who did I think. It was left as an “Easter Egg” for a fellow blogger who teaches accounting but I bet she won’t see it. Velvet paintings are wonderful. Brings a tear to my eye.


  9. HA! This got some snort-laughs from me! 😀 (yes, I click-ed on ALL of the blue links 😛 )

    Ooh, I remember those kits! 🙂

    Now they, also, have Paint By Sticker Kits! For kids and some for adults. I saw one recently and thought, “Working on that will only make me swear.” HA! Such a lot of teeny-tiny-little stickers! 😮

    Botero certainly saw the world at large largely! 😀

    Hey, here’s something you might enjoy…


    I hope the links link correctly.

    Max, you are the handsomest of all the Malteses! Just try to ignore the foolishness going on around you. That’s what Cooper tries to do. 😉 😛 If you’re successful, please let Cooper know how you do it.
    ((HUGS))) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Paint-by-number toilet paper! I laughed when I finally realized that all the paint numbers were brown. Ashamed to say how long that took me to notice. I could have lived my life happily without Fernando’s selfie. I like how they describe his images : “expanded volume.” Yeah, that’s me, expanded volume, not fat. Max says, “Remember, Coop, they are an inferior species so be patient.”

      Liked by 1 person

  10. That hyena reminds me of someone but I’m jiggered if I can put a name to it …something about the hair and the expression, I think.
    It will probably come to me in the early hours of the morning…and if rash enough to go back to sleep I will have forgotten it unless I write it down.
    Please assure Max that he is a singularly handsome Maltese deserving of extra milk bones.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Really, Helen, that’s not a very nice way to speak of Tynecastle even though I too have heard he can be ferocious in pursuit of his goals. And let’s not use “rash” and “sleep” in the same sentence, OK? I’ll pass your compliments along to Sir Max who will act like he deserves such high praise.


  11. There are four Inns of Court, to one of which all barristers belong nomatter where they practice, Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, Inner Temple and MiddleTemple.
    A Bencher is a senior member of one of the Inns…and on appointment as a High Court judge a member is automatically appointed as a Bencher – for life. In effect they run the place.
    I remember this chap sitting at the high table attacking all set before him like a famished jackal.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. My friends and I do diamond art. It is very similar to paint by numbers but done with little stones that sparkle in the light. It’s totally mindless and relaxing and we have a great deal of fun doing the “paintings.” I did paint by numbers as a kid – they were fun things to do and I guess diamond art is the adult version of those. What the heck, they’re fun and harmless.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. When I was at school, back in the days of long ago, I was very into abstract art.
    That is, I painted large gray paper canvases with strange coloured shapes across them, one of which was framed and put on the school wall.
    The tactful art master, in between playing with that female teacher, told my mother “He is too young to say if there is any talent there.” A nice way of saying “No!”
    He was correct.
    However, mum bought paint by numbers which were available in SCOTLAND as well as all those other FOREIGN nations you mentioned while missing out SCOTLAND. Just saying…
    I did several of these, most of which, if I saw them now, I would say were pathetic, but I was only 13.
    These were enjoyable ways to fill time. Paint is relaxing, unless its on a wall, and satisfaction from the result, no matter how little art is involved is great.
    ‘Art,’ I could wax lyrical re ‘art,’ and those who discuss it pretentiously but the pretentious would not like it. ‘Art,’ like fashion, is one of the great cons of the day.
    I note the paint by numbers sets on Amazon are much better than the ones from my day.
    No wonder Bezos can fly into space and return to a $50 million yacht.
    The portrait of Max is endearing.
    The portrait of you and her could fit into any modern art gallery, cost millions and still be called ‘rubbish’ by some, like me…

    Liked by 2 people

    • You are 100% right- I neglected to include Scotland in the paint-by-number distribution list but that was because I was uncertain if the products sold there had numbers higher than 5. Oh, and a small correction: our friend Mr. Bezo’s yacht is $500 million, not $50 million which would have been an obscene amount at that level let alone 10x the amount. Meanwhile the Prime Membership fees that provide free shipping for Max’s dog treats are going way, way up this year. Don’t feel bad about being in the group with no talent for paint-by-number. It’s just that we have other, better talents than filling in blank spaces according to someone else’s directions. We make our own roads, color outside the lines and bring a fresh perspective to all that we touch. At least that’s what I tell myself when I make a mess of a project that a slow but amusing child could likely master.

      Liked by 2 people

  14. I remember getting a paint by numbers set for Christmas one year. I was so excited to paint it. It did not turn out well. The paint didn’t just go on the canvas, it went on me, the floor, and the towels I used to try and clean up the mess.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Now see I’m feeling a hint to Paul Harvey again. … the rest of the story or at least some of the rest. Poor da Vinci being left out of the whole thing when he’s the mastermind behind it. He’s probably pretty happy with that actually. I confess I’ve done my share of these. Even the bust of a sweet cocker spaniel, a very long ago Christmas gift. It always bugged me the way the lines and numbers would show through the paint. But, then maybe it only shows I’m just not good enough to be an underling of Leonardo. 😄. Hope all’s well!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. First, it’s been too long and I’m glad to “read” and “see” you! Max, how the heck are you? Finn says hello! Secondly, do you know how many tabs are open on my computer? Yes, why yes, I clicked on ALL the links. I’m still laughing. I remember painting by number sets even as a 70’s child (and color by number and everything else by number!). I googled paintings of a “Lady and her dog” and was overwhelmed by the beautiful artwork. None could compare to the ones in this post. 🙂 I’m really trying to avoid reality right now; but the REAL pic of Sir Max is my favorite pic of all (and the sunflowers–I could try a paint by number and feel like a complete accomplished copier!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Great post here, Tom. Educational, full of humour and tales of human frailties, failing and basically cheating. I’ve always thought painting by number was a bit simple, but hey, if I can paint Da Vinci’s Sunflowers, bring it on. There’s hope for me yet!
    Best wishes,

    Liked by 1 person

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