Paint-By-Numbers Maestro Dan Robbins Dies At 93

Apr 5, 2019
Originally published on April 5, 2019 7:45 pm

Critics were aghast, but hobbyists couldn't get enough of it: In the mid-1950s, paint-by-numbers kits were all the rage. Dan Robbins, the artist who helped invent those kits, died at a hospice on Monday in Sylvania, Ohio, at age 93.

After World War II, Robbins was working as a package designer for Palmer Paint Company in Detroit. Company owner Max Klein was looking for a product that would appeal to adult hobbyists, and Robbins remembered something he learned in high school: Leonardo da Vinci's numbering system.

"I remembered hearing about how Leonardo da Vinci would challenge his own students or apprentices with creative assignments." Robbins wrote in his autobiography. "He would hand out numbered patterns indicating where certain colors should be used in specific projects such as underpainting, preliminary background colors or some lesser works that did not require his immediate attention."

Palmer began to produce paint-by-number kits under the name Craft Master. At first, Robbins created his own compositions for the kits. "Dad was strong in seascapes so he did a lot of those at first," says his son, Larry Robbins. "Then he'd go back, lay a clear plastic sheet over the original and assign numbers to the colors he'd laid down." Beginner kits might have only 20 colors, intermediate kits as many as 30 or 40. Leisure time being at an all-time high after the war, some 20 million paint-by-number kits sold in 1955 alone.

In 2001, the Smithsonian Museum of American History explored the, er, style with the exhibition Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s, curated by William Lawrence Bird — now curator emeritus. What astonished Bird most was how Klein and Robbins figured out what people wanted to paint in order to keep up with the craze. "They had a customer base that was dependent on them to produce new subjects. So they'd read the mail," People wanted pets, he adds — kittens, puppies and horses. The Last Supper was a particularly big hit. "And some people, when they would finish a painting, they would sign it."

He put brushes into the hands of people. - William Lawrence Bird

But Klein and Robbin's Craft Master paint-by-numbers kits didn't strike gold or even silver for their company, which faced bankruptcy at the height of their popularity. "Dan told me some 30 other companies entered the field, producing kits left and right," says Bird. "So it became a craze that was beyond his power to control."

Robbins kept on making his own art and working freelance for commercial clients. Curator emeritus Bird says one of those jobs was designing Happy Meals for McDonald's.

As for the critics who dismissed paint-by-numbers as a ridiculous endeavor, Larry Robbins says his dad didn't seem bothered by it.

"The big dilemma was 'Is it art or not?' I don't think dad got caught up in defending it one way or another," he says. Robbins believes his father took pride in giving people who might not otherwise have the opportunity "the experience of what it was like to paint," regardless of their ability.

Bird agrees. He says Robbins "democratized access to the apparatus of art for people who would never have been exposed to them otherwise. He put brushes into the hands of people." And, he adds, some of those people might have even been inspired to pick up their brushes and paint "without numbers."

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Sometime between the invention of the coloring book and the touchscreen came paint-by-numbers. The man who helped invent that system, Dan Robbins, died this week at age 93. NPR's Elizabeth Blair takes a moment to remember his legacy.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: It looks like paint-by-numbers might be the worst thing you could say about a painting, and yet the inspiration came from a technique used by master artist Leonardo da Vinci to help his assistants. Here's what happened.

After World War II, Dan Robbins was working for the Palmer Paint Company in Detroit. The owner, Max Klein, wanted a product that would appeal to the adult hobby market. Robbins started by picking a subject.

LARRY ROBBINS: Whether it was a seascape, a landscape, whatever, and paint the picture first.

BLAIR: Larry Robbins, Dan's son, says then, his dad would lay a clear, plastic sheet over the painting and assign numbers to the colors he used.

ROBBINS: Well, beginner kits might only have 20 colors. Or a more advanced kit might have 30 to 40 colors.

BLAIR: Add a couple of paint brushes and a canvas, encouraging words like every man a Rembrandt on the box, and voila, painting-by-numbers became a hit, with some 20 million kits sold in 1955. William Lawrence Bird curated an exhibition exploring the craze for the Smithsonian Museum of American History. He says Dan Robbins would read the mail to find out what people wanted to paint.

WILLIAM LAWRENCE BIRD: You know, pets, kittens, puppy dogs, horses. And some people, when they would finish the painting, they would sign it.

BLAIR: Critics were incensed. They saw it as a time wasting, shallow activity. But Larry Robbins says his dad didn't seem bothered.

ROBBINS: I don't think dad ever really got too caught up in the back and forth of whether paint-by-members was considered art or not. It gave an individual who would never have the opportunity to paint a beautiful picture the chance to experience art.

BLAIR: Dan Robbins continued making his own art and working freelance for commercial clients. Curator Bird says one of those jobs was designing toys for McDonald's Happy Meals. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK BOX'S "SONO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.