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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Personally I’d like to see some more choices featuring Fernando Botero’s works.
Categories: The Dog From Rancho Cucaracha