In 1954, a White House appointments secretary named Thomas E. Stephens distributed paint-by-numbers kits to senior officials under president Dwight Eisenhower, who sometimes gave such kits to Oval Office visitors. Stephens allowed or incited cabinet heavies to believe their boss wanted them to show their mettle in what was then a wildly popular hobby. Results were duly displayed in a White House corridor, signed by the likes of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and special assistant to the president Nelson Rockefeller.
Paint-by-numbers, whose originator Dan Robbins died earlier this month, put brushes in the hands of millions who had never painted before but who responded to slogans such as “Every Man a Rembrandt!” It was as easy as 1, 2, 3, said the ads: You just applied the numbered colours to their appointed small areas on a canvas or board, and a painting would emerge.
The kits debuted at a perfect time: 1950, when incomes and leisure time in the United States were increasing, but only 2 per cent of Americans owned a television set. Painting by numbers filled in the evening hours, much like knitting and card-playing.
It also fuelled a raging debate about the difference between popularizing high culture and dumbing it down, and about kitsch in the new consumer society. Mass-produced fake art was seen to be displacing respectable folk art by crudely mimicking high art.
The galling success of “Every Man a Rembrandt” roused art educators to deplore a cheap pastime that blurred the distinction between art and craft. No one criticized knitters for following patterns, but paint-by-numbers fans were condemned for filling in someone else’s painting instead of creating their own.
In a video interview last year, Robbins said that he created paint-by-numbers after his boss at a Detroit paint company asked: “Can you come up with an idea that would let adults colour?” Robbins painted a Picasso-like still life, and then analyzed it into small colour zones. His boss’s reaction: “I hate the painting, but I love the idea.”
The public agreed, snapping up realistic narrative scenes and shunning the few abstract kits that came to market. A rendition of Leonardo da Vinci’s mural The Last Supper “was far and away the bestselling paint-by-numbers set ever made,” Robbins said.
The painter behind that Last Supper, and many other bestselling kits, was a Holocaust survivor named Adam Grochowski, who stayed alive in Auschwitz and Mauthausen by painting for his Nazi captors. When Grochowski applied to Robbins for a job, "the samples he brought in were all done while he was in a concentration camp,” Robbins recalled. It’s doubtful that many customers knew that the maker of the images they recreated had honed his craft in death camps.
Painting by numbers became popular at about the same time that French painter Jean Dubuffet’s notion of art brut (outsider art) was gaining currency. Dubuffet saw the works of untrained mavericks as a bastion against the tendency of mainstream culture to assimilate and neutralize creative expression. In that context, painting by numbers was the ultimate in assimilation, beginning where creative expression ended. According to Robbins, his company enforced a strict house style on its anonymous painters, much as the publishers of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books imposed a uniform style on their numerous ghost writers.
Not everyone painted within the lines. The curator of a 2001 paint-by-number exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History found that some people blended between adjacent colour zones, added or deleted elements from the picture, and even extended the painting onto the frame.
Some of the comments on the online remnant of that exhibition reveal other positive aspects of the craft. “The oddly shaped numbered spaces taught contours and modelling, and how our eyes blend colours to form shapes and shadows,” wrote one former paint-by-number user, who had become a college-level art teacher.
“Today’s life seems disjointed and subject to multitasking, without much sense of accomplishment or completion,” wrote another, admiring what might now be called the mindfulness of painting by numbers. The need to feel that one has accomplished or completed something also drives interest in many video games, when the object is to unlock powers and gain new levels.
By 1962, paint-by-number kits had passed their heyday and were ready to be co-opted by pop artists such as Andy Warhol, who drew his own paint-by-numbers templates and partly coloured or painted them. He ironically gave the paint-by-numbers concept the high-art mystique the kits were criticized for vulgarizing.
Finished specimens from the first wave of paint-by-numbers are now collectibles, and new kits are retailed by several companies. A few years ago, someone posed the same question Robbins heard from his boss in 1950: “Can you come up with an idea that would let adults colour?” The winning answer was to present colouring as a way to unplug from stressful work and social media. Adult colouring books such as Stress-Relieving Animal Designs now sell in the hundreds of thousands.
The final irony of painting by numbers is that one of its most criticized implications – that art is picture-making by any means available – has become standard practice for many artists. Computers, cameras and mechanical devices can be found in many art galleries, translating environmental data, such as the movements of gallery-goers, into traces on a surface. Instead of inviting the untrained user to finish the piece, as paint-by-numbers did, interactive artists absorb the spectator into the piece. To rephrase a slogan from 1950: Everyone Inside an Artwork.