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?