Paint by Numbers was born in Detroit in 1949, inside a solitary building standing in a field of scrub grass and weeds: Palmer Show Card Paint, Inc. Palmer Paint, as it was known back then, posted an ad for a freelance artist to help with some new packaging, and Dan Robbins, my grandfather, answered it. Just a few years back from the war, he was out of work, and grateful to land the gig designing packages that would sell Palmer’s poster paints, in sets of 6 and 12 colors. His fee: $120.
Knowing there were already plenty of paint sets on the market, my grandfather searched for a hook. He remembered hearing that Leonardo da Vinci handed his apprentices numbered patterns, indicating where certain colors should be used in specific projects—underpainting here, preliminary background colors there. He wondered: What if Palmer Paint took the same approach to its sets?
His first concept was a somewhat Cubist-leaning still life that was ultimately deemed “too arty” by his boss, Max Klein, a mechanical engineer whose previous gig was with General Motors. The second concept, The Fishermen, was a more straight-ahead take on an old photograph snapped off the New England coast: A winner, for all who were involved.
Paint by Numbers was a runaway success; in its heyday, Palmer Paint’s CraftMaster brand sold about 12 million kits a year. The Eisenhower White House mounted a gallery of Paint by Numbers and other amateur paintings by administration officials and acquaintances. In time, the idea of doing something “by the numbers” would extend past arts and crafts and become synonymous with “standard operating procedure”—and all of the mixed blessings that would go along with that.
“I can’t think of any other product that swept the nation in quite the same way,” says Skip Davis, an avid collector, who has more than 1,500 Paint by Numbers on display at his home in Southfield, Michigan.
I like to think of it as a dream example of direct engagement: Today investment apps, like paint manufacturers, or pizza restaurants, for that matter, clamor for likes and clicks. The idea that a consumer would dedicate hours of precious leisure time to a product and would then, later on, hang it on her wall seems a holy grail.
Product designers who inhabit the consumer’s imagination—who move in with her family and become a fixture in her home—might best take a page out of the Paint by Numbers’ book.
“EVERY MAN A REMBRANDT”
The quaint origin story of Paint by Numbers, like its product, may seem like a slice of Americana miles away from the way we think about downtime today. And yet their operating principle is universal. “It works so well, from a marketing standpoint and a business standpoint, because people work best when they have freedom within limits,” says Langdon Graves, an instructor in color theory at Parsons School of Design in New York City.
The now ubiquitous outline underpins many of the ways that we still create, she says, citing the paint and sip craze, the practice of swapping out Snapchat filters, and software applications such as Sketchup, which enables designers, architects and hobbyists alike to build in 3D with a few clicks.
Creating “by the numbers” provides traditionally “left-brained” people with the confidence to get creative, says Graves, while at the same time offering enough freedom so that the “right-brained” among us can leave spaces blank, mix up or change up the colors or literally color outside the lines.
It sounds simple, now, but at the time Paint by Numbers acted as a lightning rod in the debate about what it means to create. The New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman admitted that he once placed it “somewhere between Hula-Hoops and Davy Crockett on the scale of cultural signifiers.” In a mid-Nineties essay reflecting on an entire generation of people drawn to painting, Kimmelman asks, as so many others did at the time: Were they even “painting?”
One of the most high-profile explorations of this tension was “Do it Yourself,” a 1962 series by Andy Warhol that featured Paint by Numbers as both subject and object. According to curator and critic Irit Krygier, it shows “Warhol’s development into a fully formed Pop artist.” Each painting in Warhol’s series feels half-finished and reminiscent, borrowing from the most popular Paint by Numbers subject matter: seascapes, landscapes, flowers. Each image includes filled-in panels, as well as visible, numbered panels. A quintessentially Warholian mix of the obvious and the whimsical.
“That was actually [Warhol’s] whole M.O.,” says Graves. “ ‘I shouldn’t take authorship of the work that I did. Then I can hire people to come to my Factory and make the work for me.’ ”
It was as if she took the words out of my now 93-year-old grandfather’s mouth.
BRINGING A PRODUCT TO MARKET
In 1949, Andy Warhol was still in Pittsburgh, finishing up his bachelor’s degree in fine arts. My grandfather was trying to get The Fishermen on the shelves. But how could he, without a basic palette to work from? He says, “I answered myself: Just start painting.”
Instead of fixating on what Palmer Paint had on offer, he squeezed some of his own store-bought oil paints from the tubes onto a glass-topped table. He then scooped those paints into glass jars, which were numbered in color groupings of yellows, reds, and blues. The next iteration of The Fishermen used these 22 colors. After it dried, he lay clear film over the top, outlining each area, and assigned each jar a number, so the image could be recreated.
This freelancer’s odd assortment of jars could not travel. What could, the Palmer Paint team discovered, were emptied-out gelatin vitamin capsules, which dissolved in water, but not though, when filled with oil-based paints.
My grandfather reached out to Eli Lilly and Company and called in a box of 50,000 empty gelatin capsules, which he and my grandmother separated while sitting in front of the TV. His boss rigged up a grease gun, attaching the pump to a slow-moving revolving wheel that was operated by a foot switch. Then they built a little conveyor belt, put all the pieces together, and persuaded big-time retailer S.S. Kresge (later K-Mart), headquartered in nearby Troy, Michigan, to stock a dozen or two of the samples in a few regional stores. It was a case of da Vinci meets Warhol, with a hefty dose of Rube Goldberg and a dash of Willy Loman for good measure.
The Fishermen gave way to other subjects—Mt. Matterhorn, Rock, Surf & Sky, The Bullfighter, and many more. Demand soon outpaced my grandfather’s capacity, so he hired his own freelance artists—many with formal training or great talent or a combination of the two. This was the secret weapon of Palmer Paint’s CraftMaster brand: Artists dictated the way the manufacturer’s colors were used, rather than the other way around.
“If the subject was horses, we would find an artist and say, ‘Start painting horses as best you can,’” explains my grandfather. “Once he did, and he overlaid the painting with plastic, he began outlining the image—this brown, that brown. He then took his colors and matched them to our manufactured colors.”
In very short order, that clutter of jars on my grandfather’s glass table grew into a master palette of about 300 colors—befitting the winter and summer landscapes, the flowers and the seascapes, and the lions, tigers and dogs that millions of people wanted on their walls.
Paint by Numbers was first an idea, and then a product; it borrowed, and so it had to share, too. But while the idea was knocked off constantly, CraftMaster had an edge: While all by-the-numbers kits had the same numbers, and similar lines surrounding them, the originals outsold their competition because of this careful consideration they gave to the paint.
“Color is extremely subjective—the temperature and the quality and the chroma always one hair away from being unappealing or extremely appealing,” says Graves. “I wonder whether Paint by Numbers were so successful because there was just something about them that was just more open to people’s personal preferences.”
The unique range of custom colors meant that, from the beginning, the paintings transitioned seamlessly from craft to contemporary home decor, says Davis. “The earliest paintings had a very unique, muted palette that was very much in tune with other things going on in fabrics and fashion at the time,” he says. “It was a wide range of colors, but greyed down, in a way.”
She cites the story of an early manufacturing blooper, in which some kits went to market with the wrong color palette for the image included, and the outrage that followed. Just imagine thousands of Western frontiers filled in with the greeny blues of a seascape. “We want things to look the way they are ‘supposed’ to look,” says Graves.
The highest-selling Paint by Number owes an additional debt to da Vinci. And there is no doubt that his The Last Supper, or, rather, Paint-by-Number artist Adam Grant’s interpretation—soon to be a part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection— has a set palette: “You don’t want a psychedelic Last Supper,” laughs Graves.
Unless, of course, you do.
ART AND SCIENCE
The irony is that the people who wondered aloud whether Paint by Numbers was an affront to art and creativity—who suggested that they robbed people of the opportunity to create by giving them a framework in which to work—are likely the ones who, like Warhol, would have welcomed the dissonance of a seafoam frontier scene or neon pink and green iconography.
“People in the art world who originally scoffed at paint by numbers [likely] didn’t buy the kits,” says Graves, “so they wouldn’t have been attracted to a given color that didn’t really ‘belong.’ ”
Graves remembers the first time she heard the da Vinci apprentice story at a recent Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition. Her first reaction, she says, was disappointment. He didn’t give them the opportunity to grow as their own artists! Her second thought: That is true in every other field, so why is there a problem in art?
The human element of creativity will always find a way, whether in the case of a “technology” as old as Paint by Numbers or an app we cannot yet imagine, which seamlessly connects our vision of beauty with our desire to create. “You can’t account for the way that someone’s hand painting—even if it is of a prescribed composition—is going to turn out,” says Graves.
The lesson: In any product worth a consumer’s time, the end is always more than the sum of its parts. The way we get there, and the story we tell after, is what makes us human—and what I call art.
→ See how designers through the ages experimented with color: Take an online tour of Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color, on view now at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Feature image: Andy Warhol, Do It Yourself (Violin) detail, 1962. © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York