Michigan man inspired budding artists and started 1950s craze
Dan Robbins’ artwork hangs in thousands of homes across America, but he didn’t paint a single one of them. The West Bloomfield, Mich., artist created paint-by-number patterns and launched a craze that swept America in the 1950s.
“I was lucky enough to be the right guy at the right time in the right place,” says Robbins, 86, about the Craft Master paint kits he developed in 1950 for Palmer Paint Co. in Detroit.
After World War II, Americans had leisure time, and company owner Max Klein asked Robbins to create a paint set for grownups.
“I remembered that Leonardo da Vinci would give his apprentices numbered patterns,” says Robbins, who studied art in the 1940s at Cass Technical High School in Detroit. “The word numbered stuck in my mind.’”
To illustrate his idea, Robbins created Abstract No. 1, a still life painting of a water pitcher and a platter of fruit, carefully mixing and numbering each color. After the paint dried, he traced the image on clear film and outlined and numbered each area to be painted.
Robbins recalls his boss’s reaction. “He said, ‘I hate it. Abstracts are for people who pretend to be artists,’” Robbins says.
“Then he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, ‘If you can create subjects people want to paint, then go for it.”’
Wannabe artists clamored for Robbins’ subjects beginning in 1951 after novices demonstrated paint-by-numbers at a toy fair and Macy’s department store in New York City, proving that anyone could create a stunning painting with a $2.49 Craft Master kit. As the amateurs painted the numbered canvases, scenes of fishermen being tossed at sea, a charging bull and bullfighter, and snow-capped Mount Matterhorn took shape.
Sales skyrocketed and by 1953, Robbins was supervising 75 artists as they sketched and painted thousands of subjects, including ballerinas, the Beatles, clipper ships, frisky kittens, Mona Lisa and tropical birds. Robbins’ wife, Estelle, test-painted each image and wasn’t surprised by the demand for more.
“They were fun,” says Estelle, 87. “It gave you a big feeling of satisfaction to paint one.”
At least 30 companies produced paint-by-numbers during the 1950s, although Craft Master sold the most—$20 million worth—during the craze’s peak in 1954.
“Year in and year out, the most popular paint-by-number was The Last Supper,” says Robbins, whose favorite among the 36 paintings he created is a rustic water mill scene.
As millions of paint-by-number artists hung their masterpieces above their sofas, critics groused that they weren’t real artists, even though in 1952 a reproduction of Abstract No. 1 won third place in a San Francisco art contest.
But as quickly as the fad emerged, it faded. Other attractions, including television, claimed leisure time. By 1956, Craft Master’s sales fell to $2 million and Klein sold the company. Robbins stayed with the company through several ownership and product name changes until 1971.
Today, paint-by-numbers are treasured as Americana, and Robbins lectures about his role as the paint-by-numbers guru and possibly the most exhibited artist in the world. In 1997, he wrote his story in Whatever Happened to Paint-by-Numbers?
“Paint-by-numbers touched so many people,” says graphics artist Skip Davis, 63, who devotes one room of his Southfield, Mich., home to his gallery of more than 800 paint-by-numbers, including most of Robbins’ work. He paid $301 on eBay for Journey through Space, a rocket painting, but was outbid on a rare Queen Elizabeth portrait that fetched $2,850.
“The paintings allowed people to do some-thing creative that they didn’t think they were able to do,” Davis says. “They were considered something pretty wonderful and serious décor.”
Although millions of people signed their completed paint-by-numbers, the anonymous artist behind the concept didn’t get much credit until a 2001 exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Parked at the entrance to the exhibit, “Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste,” was Abstract No. 1, the water pitcher and fruit still life painted in 1950 to illustrate the paint-by-number idea—and today proudly signed by Dan Robbins.