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    Auction Finds

    Paint-by-numbers kits make everyone an unlikely artist

    I had seen a painting like this one before at the auction house, and I had ignored it. It looked like an illustration out of some book and it didn’t move me one bit.

    Then this one appeared (perhaps it was the same painting), on a different wall in the same room, and I was about to ignore it, too, until I read the description.

    “Vintage paint-by-number landscape (oil on cardboard) w/ painted oak frame. Unsigned. Fine condition.”

    "Winter Shadows," a paint-by-numbers painting by Craftint.

    “Winter Shadows,” a paint-by-numbers painting by Craftint that was up for sale.

    Wow, I thought. I never expected it to be a paint-by-numbers painting. I knew of them but nothing about how they came about.

    It seems that paint-by-number kits were a phenomenon in the 1950s, so much so that the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution mounted an exhibit about the artwork in 2001. The kits were first offered in 1951 by Palmer Paint Company in Detroit under the name Craft Master, enticing would-be painters with the slogan “Every man a Rembrandt.”

    Anyone could be an artist, and many tried their hand at it. By 1954, the Palmer company had sold 12 million kits. The images over the years included landscapes, animals, nursery rhymes, clowns, Native Americans, and island and religious scenes, and much more.

    An up-close view of a part of the painting.

    An up-close view of a part of the painting at auction.

    The kits got their start with Max S. Klein, owner of the paint company, who wanted to find a way to sell more paint. He turned to artist Dan Robbins who had been making paint kits for kids. Robbins came up with the idea of paint-by-numbers art kits, which amounted to using numbered colors on a numbered outline (first the kits contained rolled canvas and later, cardboard).

    Robbins’ first paintings were abstracts that did go over well initially with Palmer and later with most buyers, who preferred realism.

    “I decided to do a simple abstract painting because that seemed easy to do in segments of color,” Robbins says on the Paint By Number Museum website. “Abstracts were popular at the time and seemed like an artistic way of explaining the idea. So, with a little Braque, a little Picasso and a lot of Robbins, I created a 12×16 painting in 22 colors. I called it Abstract No.1. My boss got the idea, but hated the painting so I designed The Fishermen for our first kit. However, we included Abstract No.1 in the catalog of our first six kits. Eventually it became very famous when someone entered a completed Abstract No.1 in an art show and won. The judges were quite embarrassed but the prize resulted in lots of debate about the concept of art and lots of publicity about paint by numbers. Abstract No. 1 became so famous that it has been reissued as a commemorative kit.”

    The kits were especially popular on the West Coast, and Palmer began selling them overseas. Soon, more artists were hired to create the artwork along with Robbins. Craft Master attracted competition from other companies.

    The concept of paint-by-numbers was not new. Michelangelo was said to have used the process to paint the Sistine Chapel frescoes during the 16th century, numbering various sections for his students to paint.

    At left is Dan Robbins' first paint-by-numbers image. At right is the painting he completed.

    At left is the line art for Dan Robbins’ first paint-by-numbers “Abstract No. 1.” At right is the painting he completed of the image. Photo of painting from paintbynumbermuseum.com, line art from npr.org drawn from the Smithsonian exhibit.

    In a 2005 interview, Robbins says he was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci who used numbered patterns for his apprentices to block in areas of paintings that he would finish up. Artist Adam Grant created Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” as a paint-by-numbers, and it was said to be one of the most popular.

    This explosion of unfettered art had its share of critics, who saw these folks – whom they called “number filler inners” – as wasting their time. Critics saw these works as a stain on the true art that derived from talent. In some instances, the paintings gave would-be artists a greater appreciation of the intricacies of art and the world around them. Some even drew outside the lines, and added or subtracted elements from the prescribed images – making the works their own.

    Practically everyone was into the kits. At the White House in the 1950s, President Eisenhower’s appointment secretary Thomas Edwin Stephens set up in the West Wing a gallery of such paintings (along with amateur works) by members and friends of the administration, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s “Swiss Village” and Nelson Rockefeller’s “Old Mission.” Rockefeller was a special assistant to Eisenhower.

    Untitled, 2009, by African American artist Kerry James Marshall shows a paint-by-numbers painting in the background.

    Untitled (2009) by African American artist Kerry James Marshall shows a paint-by-numbers portrait in the background of the artist in the foreground.

    Most of the paintings, though, hung in people’s home. The kits came with a pamphlet offering suggestions on how to frame and hang them, and how to group them. The kits remained popular for several decades (and can still be purchased), and inspired such professionals in the Pop Art movement as Andy Warhol.

    Some African American artists were also thusly influenced. A retrospective of works by Kerry James Marshall at the Met Breur last year included several paintings of artists creating their own portraits by using paint-by-numbers. (Robbins did a similar portrait of himself.) Artist William Tolliver used a paint-by-number kit to learn how to mix and blend colors, especially to get skin tones right, when he was a boy (he was born in 1951). Artist Dean Mitchell remembered his grandmother giving him a kit when he was 5 years old, but he didn’t like it and started painting what he did like.

    By the 1990s paint-by-numbers artwork were considered collectibles. I learned that the painting at auction was titled “Winter Shadows” and was created by a company called Craftint.

     

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