Paint-by-numbers guru looks back on craze

Sunday, July 11, 2004

CHICAGO -- Long before Elvis's face first hit black velvet, the guardians of all that is good and serious in American art had something else to bewail. This heresy was called paint-by-numbers, and Dan Robbins was its prophet.

Robbins created the first paint-by-numbers pictures in the late 1940s, then rode the craze through the boom years of the 1950s and the bust of the 1960s.

Although he was once embarrassed explaining what he did for a living when he met his old art on the street, Robbins can now look back on the paint-by-numbers phenomenon with a certain amount of pride.

The once-mocked paintings are a hot collectible on eBay, and Robbins, now 79, had the satisfaction of seeing his artworks hanging in the Smithsonian in 2001 and 2002 -- even if other people actually filled in the paint.

Robbins said he had suspicions his artistic career was going to be odd when he first met his eventual employer, Max Klein of now-defunct Palmer Paint Inc. in Detroit. Robbins signed on with Klein to create a children's watercolor set.

The children's paint sets were selling reasonably well when Klein, noting the increasing leisure time of postwar America, asked Robbins to come up with a way to market the company's paint to adults.

"I remembered hearing that Leonardo used numbered background patterns for his students and apprentices, and I decided to try something like that," Robbins recalled.

When Klein asked to see a prototype, Robbins said he "stirred together some Picasso, some Bracque and some Robbins" to create "Abstract No. 1," a vaguely Cubistic still life.

"I hate it," Klein said. "Abstracts are for people who call themselves artists, but can't paint worth a damn."

But Klein liked the paint-by-numbers concept and gave Robbins the green light, as long as he could create subjects people "would actually like to paint."

That meant traditional landscapes, dancers and animals -- particularly horses, sad-eyed puppies and fuzzy kittens. Robbins turned them all out.

The Craft Master paint-by-numbers kit was born. In the early days, each $2.50 kit contained three pieces of real canvas, printed with lines and numbers, two brushes, a palette, and 20 or so capsules of paint.

Craft Master's paint-by-numbers sales peaked at 20 million kits in 1955.

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