Everyday da Vinci


I think paint by number kits are even more American than apple pie.

With their Do-It-Yourself/Can Do! approach, they not only gave 1950-60s, post-war Americans a fun and easy leisure activity, but allowed them to embrace their (or another’s) inner creativity, with “Every Man a Rembrandt” their rallying cry.

And in this new era of “Keeping up with the Jones’”, the make-your-own-framed-painting kits couldn’t have been better timed. 1950s Americans not only had more money than ever before, they wanted to spend it on bigger and better cars, clothes, recreation and, of course, houses.

Which meant more walls to fill.

Max Klein of the Palmer Paint Company in Detroit, Michigan wanted to help by making his oil paints a part of every home. But how could he get a brush into the average American’s hands?

Enter, Dan Robbins, a local artist making his living creating washable paints sets for children. Klein gave Robbins the daunting task of finding the artist in all of us. It was an enormous idea and Robbins was struggling to make a reality, until he remembered an idea Leonardo da Vinci had for teaching his students.

He gave them numbered patterns.

The first prototype Robbins designed for Klein – an abstract – is said to have confused the owner/engineer, but Klein was enough of a visionary to let the young artist move ahead; and in 1951, the first six paint-by-number kits (under the name of Craft Master) were released.

Although sales were slow at the beginning, Klein and Robbins came up with brilliant marketing schemes – such as creating a giant paint-by-number billboard and, day by day, filling in the colors while a crowd (on bleachers provided) watched and paying “customers” to buy out their stock at Macy’s.

The popularity of the kits soon sky-rocketed and Robbins went from freelancer to Art Director for the paint company just as quickly.

Despite the enormous criticism of the mass-homogenization of art,  these kits would appeal to people of all ages, skills and interests, and would eventually cover a remarkable range of styles, scenes and subject matters; becoming an oddly charming and wonderfully indelible part of not only American Culture, but a culture of aspiring paint-by-number artists across Europe.

In 1954, such international appeal earned the Palmer Paint Company $20 million in sales; while Robbins’ art would reportedly end up hanging on more walls than any other artist in history.

I found the cover painting, April in Paris sitting outside at a local thirft and immediately swooped up this framed, 36 x 27, 90 oil colors on canvas (although mine seems to be a wood panel), designed by Adam Grant, a Polish immigrant and self-taught Midwestern painter who was the very first to answer Robbins’ advert for artists. Grant would not only become one of the company’s lead artists, but would go on to be considered a master of figure painting.

Those which follow are other paint-by-numbers I’ve discovered at local thrifts over the past few years. Thanks to an awesome website: paintbynumbermuseum.com, I was able to find great information:

Deer Country, 12 x 16, 24 oil, unframed panel, by Craft Master, New Artist series. The caption on the 1950s catalog read: “The hunter’s favorite prey roam the forest.”

Home by the Brook, 14 x 10, 18 oils colors, wood palette, Craft Master, New Artist 18, set of two, 1960. The autumn scenes above were found framed and together. Both pieces were recently sold to a friend, an avid 1950s collector, whose father had painted this very same set which hung in her family’s home for many years.

Royal Lineage, 9 x 12, unframed palette, Craftint, 12 oil colors, Paint n Group. This early 1960s horse portrait was one of a set of three matching pictures.

Mountain Stream, 24 x 18 , 45 colors, panel, Craft House, Masterpiece 13201, Gallery Series 13211, Provenance: Holyoke MA. I particularly like this Craft House paint-by-number because it differs quite a bit from its pattern. The colors are bolder and the paint layers are thick and heavy handed, making the original detail disappear – as did most of the pines.

It makes me think that the painter either had his or her own impressionistic vision, or… they couldn’t be bothered.

Either way, I love its uniqueness.

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