Dan Robbins, inventor of paint-by-number kits, dies at 93

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Dan Robbins, who tried to make "every man a Rembrandt" with his invention of paint-by-number kits in the 1950s, a phenomenon that delighted hobbyists and rankled critics by inviting amateurs to dip their toe - and a paintbrush - into the realm of art, died April 1 in Sylvania, Ohio.

He was 93. The cause was complications from pneumonia, said his son Larry Robbins.

Robbins, whose creations adorned millions of American homes in their heyday, was a self-described "right guy at the right time in the right place".

The time was the prosperous lull after World War II, when Americans had newfound time for recreation.

The place was Detroit, birthplace of the assembly line, where Robbins, then in his 20s, worked for Palmer Paint Co. He had recently mustered out of the Army Signal Corps and was retraining his artistic abilities from map-making to designing children's colouring books.

He presented to the company's owner, Max Klein, a proposal for a new product for adults. It was not a colouring book, but rather a colouring canvas predrawn with a design resembling a colourless stained-glass window.

Each blank segment would contain a number corresponding to a capsule of paint included with the set, thus the name "paint by number".

His prototype, a still-life that emerged when he "stirred together some Picasso, some Braque and some Robbins", he told the Associated Press, was titled Abstract No. 1.

Klein swiftly rejected it, decreeing, with more than a dab of irony, that "abstracts are for people who call themselves artists but can't paint worth a damn".

But Klein saw potential in the idea and asked Robbins to explore more easily digestible subject matter.

Robbins, and later other artists he hired, came through with landscapes and seascapes, florals and celebrity portraits sold under the Craft Master brand. Horses would be a runaway hit, as were kittens with balls of yarns, and clowns.

Sales were slow at first but took off after paint-by-number kits appeared at a toy show in New York in 1951.

For roughly US$2.50 (S$3.39) a set, every man, as the slogan went, could be a Rembrandt. By the early 1950s, paint-by-number kits reached US$80 million a year in sales.

For cosmopolitan consumers, there was a Parisian scene featuring Notre Dame cathedral. For those whose tastes ran to the bucolic, there was a New England barn.

Religious painters-by-number could choose among renderings of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and biblical scenes. For the artsy, there were even a few nudes.

FBI director J Edgar Hoover painted a Swiss village; President Dwight D Eisenhower, too, joined the craze and displayed paint-by-number masterworks in the White House.

The most popular offering was a replica of Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper designed by Adam Grant, formerly Grochowski, a Polish survivor of the Nazi concentration camps whom Robbins credited as the most able artist among his colleagues.

Other classic replicas included the Mona Lisa.

Robbins credited Da Vinci with inspiring his creation. "I had heard that Da Vinci used to use diagrams and number them when he was instructing his students in painting, and a light bulb went off in my head," Robbins told the Chicago Tribune in 1999. "I thought, why not do numbered patterns for paintings that people can finish?"

That link to the Renaissance notwithstanding, art and cultural critics could scarcely contain their disdain for paint-by-number kits, and the people who enjoyed them.

Even children learning to colour in between the lines choose their own colours, the argument seemed to go. "Can't you rescue some of these souls - or should I say morons?" one letter writer spat onto the pages of the magazine American Artist.

As time went on, the term "paint by number" became a byword for conformity or lack of originality. But then even more time went on, and the canvases (later made from cardboard) began to evoke nostalgia, even fascination.

Paint-by-number kits had largely disappeared from the shelves by 1960, a victim of competitive market saturation and new fads, but millions of treasured works survive in attics and basements. They surface at flea markets and on eBay, waiting for collectors to find them. Some bear the signature of their creators.

In 2001, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History mounted the exhibit "Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s."

"When paint by number arrived as a popular pastime in the early Fifties, it opened a cultural fissure that has never closed," Spencer Crew, the museum's director, wrote in an introduction to the exhibit's catalogue.

The exhibit concluded that "the participatory ideal of paint by number - realised primarily by individuals who had never before held a paint brush - affirmed in a very American way, the cultural value of art."'

John Daniel Robbins was born in Detroit on May 26, 1925. His father, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, was a car salesman, and his mother was a homemaker.

Robbins missed his high school graduation to join the Signal Corps, serving in Europe during World War II. After working for Palmer Paint and Craft Master, he joined a company that made cake-decorating supplies and later opened his own freelance operation.

He continued painting into his 80s and wrote a memoir, Whatever Happened To Paint-By-Numbers: A Humorous (Personal) Account Of What It Took To Make Anyone An 'Artist' ".

Survivors include his wife of 73 years, the former Estelle Shapiro, of Sylvania; two sons, Michael Robbins of Albuquerque and Larry Robbins of Toledo, Ohio; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Robbins paid little mind to critics who disparaged his work, although he did concede that it is "really kind of weird that somebody like myself has had thousands and thousands of people painting these pictures I created."

"But their attitude is, 'Look what I've created,' and that's fine," he told the Tribune. "The individuals took pride in their own creation. It's really their painting."

William Lawrence Bird, the curator of the Smithsonian exhibit and now a curator emeritus, said in an interview that Robbins had provided people a "compromise between art and keeping a roof over your head, earning a living, putting the kids through school."

He recalled with fondness the reminisces that poured into the museum after the exhibit. Paint-by-number kits, in those memories, were glimpses of art for towns too small for museums, homes too poor for greater luxuries, and lives without many other pleasures. One woman recalled the enjoyment the kits brought to her mother and other relatives as they struggled with illness.

"Today, as I cruise the aisles of the resale shops, whenever I see the same finished pictures languishing in the bins under layers of dust," she wrote, "I harken back immediately to the smells of oil paint, thinner, medicines, and high fevers."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.