Inventor of US 'paint by number' kits dies at 93

WASHINGTON • Mr 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 last Monday in Sylvania, Ohio.

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

Mr 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 Mr Robbins, then in his 20s, worked for Palmer Paint. 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 pre-drawn 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".

Mr Klein swiftly rejected it.

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

Mr 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 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.

Mr Robbins credited Leonardo 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," Mr Robbins told the Chicago Tribune in 1999.

"I thought, why not do numbered patterns for paintings that people can finish?"

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 called Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s.

"When paint by number arrived as a popular pastime in the early 50s, it opened a cultural fissure that has never closed," Mr Spencer Crew, the museum's director, wrote in an introduction to the exhibit's catalogue.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 07, 2019, with the headline 'Inventor of US 'paint by number' kits dies at 93'. Print Edition | Subscribe