By Katharine Q Seelye
Dan Robbins was no Leonardo da Vinci. But he copied one of the master’s basic techniques and thereby enabled children to grow up believing that they, too, could paint “The Last Supper.”
Robbins, a package designer who died recently at 93, helped to conceive what became known as paint by numbers. He copied the idea from Leonardo, who numbered the objects in the background of his paintings and had his apprentices paint them with designated colors.
With paint-by-numbers kits, young baby boomers in the 1950s followed the same mechanics as those Renaissance artisans, coloring inside the outlines of images of everything from seascapes and the Matterhorn to kittens and Queen Elizabeth II. The process opened up art to the masses — another notch on the continuum of a limitless democratic American ethos that promised “a chicken in every pot” and “every man a king.”
As the packaging on one paint-by-numbers kit promised, “Every man a Rembrandt.”
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For a time, it might be said that Dan Robbins, who was essentially an illustrator, was the most exhibited artist in the world. His original freehand drawings provided the templates for the paint-by-numbers kits, and the results covered the empty walls of newly built postwar suburban living rooms.
In 1955, sales hit 20 million kits, with Craft Master, the brand Robbins worked for, selling about 12 million. (It did not have a patent on the technique, however, so other manufacturers were able to flood the market with their own versions.)
Paint-by-numbers works were hung in the Eisenhower White House, reimagined by Andy Warhol and used on the cover of Mad magazine, rendering Alfred E. Newman’s gaptoothed face in outlines and numbers.
“Paint by numbers was viral before there was viral,” Skip Davis, a Michigan graphic designer who has collected more than 1,500 paintings that were painted by number, said in an interview. “It was bigger than Hula Hoops and bigger than TV dinners.”
But was it art?
Critics rolled their eyes. The paint-by-numbers craze was to them symbolic of the conformity of the bland Eisenhower era. “Paint by numbers” became shorthand for unthinking, mechanical, “just following orders” behavior.
“I don’t know what America is coming to,” wrote one critic, “when thousands of people, many of them adults, are willing to be regimented into brushing paint on a jigsaw miscellany of dictated shapes and all by rote.”
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History staged an exhibit in 2001 called “Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s.” It surveyed the phenomenon less as art than as a window through which to examine “the history of creativity, leisure and domesticity in postwar America.”
William Lawrence Bird, curator emeritus of the museum, said that he does not consider paint-by-numbers paintings as art, though some are in the museum’s permanent collection.
“But,” he said, “when you’re doing this, you could learn what art was.”
The self-effacing Robbins had no pretensions.
“I never claim that painting by number is art,” he wrote in “Whatever Happened to Paint-By-Numbers?” a book published in 1998. “But it is the experience of art, and it brings that experience to the individual who would normally not pick up a brush, not dip it in paint. That’s what it does.”
After all, the paint-by-numbers phenomenon developed not from a creative impulse but from a commercial one. Max Klein, who owned the Palmer Show Card Paint Co. in Detroit, had asked Robbins, his employee, to figure out a way to sell more paint.
John Daniel Robbins was born in Detroit on May 26, 1925. His father, Lou, was a car salesman and part-time vaudeville singer, his mother, Helen (Levine) Robbins, a homemaker.
He graduated from Cass Technical High School in Detroit in 1943 and served in the Army Corps of Engineers in the maps division. After he returned from the war, he married Estelle Shapiro in 1946 and began working as a freelance artist, using skills he had developed at Cass Tech in pencil drawing, graphic design, lithography, water coloring and art composition.
Hired by Palmer Paints, which made washable poster paints for children, he was designing packages and working on coloring books for children when Klein, eager to improve sales, suggested to him that he create a coloring book for adults.
Robbins didn’t care for that idea. But he remembered learning about that technique of Leonardo’s, of creating outlines and numbering each space to be painted. He gave it a try and came up with a cubist still life.
Klein, who had been a chemist at General Motors and was no fan of abstract art, was horrified by the cubist painting. But he liked the number concept and asked Robbins to paint something representational that might be more appealing. Robbins returned with “The Fishermen,” painted from a photograph taken off the New England coast.
They knew they had a winner, and under the name Craft Master, they began the slow, cumbersome process of making kits with brushes, pieces of canvas and paints. Robbins created all the original art, drawing 30 or 40 illustrations freehand. He and his wife would then lay a clear film over the drawing, trace it and assign a color to every part of the picture.
One of their bigger challenges, as one of his granddaughters, Sarah J. Robbins, recounted in an article last year, was how to package the paints that were sold as part of each kit. They realized that gelatin capsules — the kind used for vitamin pills — were the perfect vehicle: They dissolved in water but would hold oil-based paint.
“My grandfather reached out to Eli Lilly and Co. and called in a box of 50,000 empty gelatin capsules, which he and my grandmother separated while sitting in front of the TV,” Robbins wrote. With a grease gun, they manually filled each capsule with paint.
After heavy marketing, sales eventually took off, and they streamlined the process, hiring more illustrators and mechanizing the process of squeezing paints into tiny plastic pots.
Their first hire was an illustrator, Adam Grant, a Holocaust survivor. He created the company’s best-selling paint-by-numbers painting, which, fittingly, was Leonardo’s “The Last Supper.”
Palmer’s Craft Master was not the first company to produce a numbered painting kit; a patent for the concept had been filed in 1923. But Craft Master originated the modern industry and became a leader in the field as dozens of competitors popped up.
Alas, when the big boxy appliance that accompanied those TV dinners started invading living rooms in the mid-1950s, sales of paint-by-numbers kits ebbed. But they still sell steadily today, having become ever more sophisticated. In appealing to adults, they are marketed as ways to relax and shut down the brain.
Robbins died in hospice care in Sylvania, Ohio. His son Larry said the cause was complications of pneumonia. In addition to him, Robbins is survived by his wife; another son, Michael; three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Larry Robbins said that despite the scorn of critics, his father remained adamant that paint-by-numbers gave everyone the chance to create something, even if they could not draw at all. And, he said, 20 copies of the same painting can still show variations in style and coloring, “just as if you had 20 different people playing Beethoven, you would have 20 different sounds.”