Boomers Painted By Number

Like so many anonymous influencers of the Boomer Era, not many people know the name, Dan Robbins. Yet, if you mention that Mr. Robbins brought the 1950s and ’60s craze of paint-by-number kits to America, the recognition light bulb glows brightly. This past week, Dan Robbins died at the age of 93.

The story goes, Mr. Robbins was a commercial artist employed by the Palmer Paint Company in Detroit, Michigan. The company specialized in children’s paints. In the late 1940s, he was tasked by his boss, Max Klein, to find a way for the company to sell more paint to adults. Recalling that Leonardo Da Vinci had created a technique to teach his studio apprentices that involved a by-number system, Mr. Robbins put together the idea of a kit, which would include oil paint, a brush, a small bottle of turpentine and a canvas board that had an image in light blue or gray printed on it. The image was broken down into areas of color. Each area was given a number that corresponded with the number on the included cups of paint.

Mr. Robbins chose as his first image a mishmash of three modern abstract artists and showed it to his boss. Mr. Klein hated the imagery, but loved the idea. It wasn’t a new idea, since the first paint-by-number patent was issued in 1923 — but very quickly it became evident the Palmer Paint Company, and Dan Robbins, as its chief artist, were on to something. The first Craft Master Paint-by-Number kit was brought to market in 1950, and cost $2.50. $2 million worth of kits were sold that first year. By 1955, the peak of the craze, sales reached $20 million. By then several other companies had joined in, the market became over saturated, and sales dropped.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, printmaking was at its zenith, offering an affordable way for the public to display art in their homes. Currier and Ives made a career out of it, and many boomers will recall grandparents or parents displaying prints, or reproductions of prints, in their homes when boomers were young. It was an entrance into the art world. Decades later, the paint-by-number kit offered a chance for anyone to feel what it was like to create something with paint, and display it as coming from their hands. The mothers of boomers, as well as growing boomers, were especially the target for the sale of the kits.

Dan Robbins was responsible for drawing the first 30 or so originals that were then broken down into separate colors by placing an acetate sheet over the painting and tracing the color edges. Categories of imagery were animals (mostly cats, dogs and horses); landscapes; people (especially clowns, matadors and dancers); copies of famous paintings (like Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa); and religious scenes. It was a combination of the last two categories that brought about the company’s best seller: A paint-by-number copy of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Many boomers will recall entering homes of their relatives or friends that had one of these painted Last Supper kits hung on the wall.

Mister Boomer had a brief foray into the paint-by-number world via a Christmas present one year. He was artistically inclined from a very early age, so more than likely his aunt thought the kit might foster his already burgeoning love of drawing and painting. Instead, though it was his introduction to using oil paints, Mister B found the work — a landscape — tedious and boring. He was much more interested in coming up with his own images, his own way and with his own color choices.

Similar kits are still available today, but the heyday for paint-by-number looks back at the early days of the Boomer Generation. In a similar vein, today’s adult coloring books offer an experience like the paint-by-number kits, but with the twenty-first century twist of not only being available in print books, but on screen with a phone app.

How about you, boomers? Did you or someone in your family try their hand at a paint-by-number kit?

Boomers Influenced Car Colors

Cars exhibited an explosion of color in the1950s, including two-tone and tri-tone paint jobs. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, car companies were looking to show families that “the woman of the house” needed a car of her own. Consequently, they painted cars in colors formerly called “feminine,” like yellow, mint, blue and pink pastels, in an effort to appeal to female car buyers.

As the decade went on, auto manufacturers tamed their color palettes along with their tail fins. The fashion world was erupting with form and bright colors by the mid-60s, yet the car companies decided “tasteful” was the way to go. There were a few exceptions here and there, but generally speaking, the tones were not the look-at-me displays of the decade earlier. As a result, by the end of the decade — 50 years ago in 1969 — family cars were offered in a spectrum of colors considered to evoke stability and calmness, including blues, greens, aquas, grays and siennas, with an occasional burgundy or light yellow mixed into the selections. Additional jewel tones presented a pragmatic, calming look befitting an era filled with strife and discord.

The first family car to break the early ’60s color trend came about with the introduction of the Mercury Montego in 1968. It was the Mercury equivalent of the Ford Torino, an intermediate-sized car available in two-door or four-door models. One of the colors the company offered on the car was called Calypso Coral, a bright red-orange that was sure to advertise the car’s presence blocks before it arrived. Mercury quickly made it available on the sporty Cougar line. The color was a big success, so by 1969, American Motors, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler followed suit and all had a red-orange or orange-red color of their own on select car lines.

Meanwhile, boomers were growing, and the oldest boomers were buying cars of their own. The car companies had a need to cater to this burgeoning market, and did so with high-performance muscle cars from the middle of the 1960s into the early 1970s. Muscle cars presented the auto companies the perfect place to display a splash of color. Plymouth Barracuda, Road Runner (in Barracuda Orange) and Dodge Charger (with a color generally called Charger Red) sported a bright red-orange color, and Ford made Calypso Coral available on Mustangs. Yellows got brighter, greens more Kelly and less Forest, and blues more Sea and less Sky. As 1970 arrived, companies employed even flashier, neon-bright colors for their muscle cars that now embraced descriptions of electric blue, lime green and grape purple. Were they trying to give boomers a bright reminder of eating Trix cereal? Or was it the fashions of the 1960s that changed the palette? Either way, boomers had an influence on the colors that cars were painted.

Mister Boomer’s father had a two-tone car in 1957, followed by a light blue, then a dark blue one. Mister B’s favorite, a turquoise color, came after that in the mid-60s. Since Mister B bought used cars from people his father worked with, his first two cars were white, then a dull brown. His first new car, however, was gold-bronze, followed by green. Brother Boomer went from an older brown color in the early ’60s to baby blue, then moved into a black muscle car that was so shiny it reflected its entire surroundings. Mister B’s sister’s first car was yellow. She followed it with a purple one.

By the mid-70s, car colors were being tamed as they were a decade earlier as consumers opted for darker shades. Today, you can see the color palette has once again shifted to include all types of brighter colors.

What does the future hold for car colors? Prognosticators are predicting that self-driving vehicles, the future of personal transportation on everyone’s mind, will sport lighter colors — at least in their early days. The sensors needed to locate other vehicles react better to lighter colors than darker ones. These predictors are suggesting whites, grays and silvers may be the order of the day for the introduction of self-driving cars. Nonetheless, even though darker colors require more sensors, manufacturer spokespeople are predicting that consumer tastes, as always, will dictate future car colors.

What is the wildest color you ever had on a car you owned, boomers?