Dan Robbins was the artistic mastermind who created the paint-by-numbers technique. He also helped ensure paint-by-numbers kits were a big hit in the 1950s. He died just a few days ago at age 93.
Dan Robbins: Artist and Creator of Paint-by-Numbers
Robbins generated the concept of paint-by-numbers in the 1940s when he was working for Palmer Paint Company in Detroit as a package designer. The artist admitted that his inspiration came from the great Leonardo da Vinci. A contributor to NBC News quoted Robbins from 2004:
“I remembered hearing that Leonardo used numbered background patterns for his students and apprentices, and I decided to try something like that.”
The Evolution of Paint-by-Numbers
When he was first developing paint-by-numbers, Dan Robbins drew an abstract still life which Max Klein, his boss, made no bones about disliking strongly. But Klein went on to give him constructive criticism, encouraging Robbins to develop something the average person would be excited to paint.
The initial paint-by-numbers kit scenes depicted puppies, kittens, horses and landscapes. The first 30 to 35 scenes were created by Robbins himself. Later subjects were created by other artists.
“While the Craft Master paint-by-numbers kits weren’t embraced initially, sales quickly took off and peaked at 20 million in 1955. Within a few years, though, the market was flooded, sales dropped and Klein sold the company,” stated NBC News.
Paint-by-numbers fans were choosy about what kits they wanted to use. “Abstract sets didn’t perform well, but landmarks like the Matterhorn couldn’t stay on the shelves,” stated the Smithsonian. “Of course, for those reasons, the art crowd poo-pooed the whole trend, calling it symptomatic of the conformity of the time.”
For every critic who was against paint-by-numbers, believing it cheapened art, there were probably hundreds more who were crazy about the kits and thrilled to get a chance to try their hand at painting and create something visually appealing.
Dan Robbins Leaves a Color Legacy in Paint-by-Numbers
Artist Dan Robbins invented something iconic in paint-by-numbers. “Together, Robbins helped create slices of Americana that are still collected and are found framed in homes across the nation,” stated a contributor to NBC News. “Palmer still sells at least two kits: one remembering the Sept. 11 attacks and the other depicting the Last Supper.”
By fearlessly dreaming and using his own talent to fuel his dreams, Robbins developed one of the most influential and culture-shaping products ever to be launched into the arts industry.
Have you ever used a paint-by-numbers kit? What was your experience like?
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