One of the Christmas gifts my daughter received was a Paint By Numbers (PBN) and she is now busy filling in the spaces with the correctly numbered paint. One of the things I notice, that is different from the early PBNs, is today’s paint is water based unlike the oil paints of the 1950’s. Back then you could smell the uncompleted painting before you saw it. With the oil paints you also had to paint some and then let it dry for a couple of days before you could go back to painting which would mean it would take weeks to complete a “painting”.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s you could go in to any home in America and odds were you would find a PBN hanging on the wall. Done not only by children and teenagers, adults too use to sit and paint by the hour. They were fun to do and no one expected to become an artist but you did feel a sense of pride when it was completed. Up until this year two of my PBNs from the 1950’s hung in my parent’s home. This year my mother passed them over to me and I am now wondering where to hang them.
Un-like today, when people have access to the world, in the 1950’s and 1960’s there was limited things to do in your leisure time, board games and PBNs were a big hit. You could sit for hours at the kitchen table painting away and “create” The Last Supper, or maybe a Blue Boy or even a Horse Head. Paint by number functioned as a compromise between genuine creativity and the security of following instructions. Altho when you first opened a PBN it looked like a topographical map instead of a possible painting, in the end it was an artistic success - done by you.
One of the first (and most successful) makers of Paint by numbers was Max S. Klein, owner of the Palmer Paint Company of Detroit, Michigan. He along with artist Dan Robbins conceived the idea and created many of the initial paintings. Palmer Paint began distributing paint-by-number kits under the Craft Master label in 1951.
PBNs found their place in popular parlance when the expression "by the numbers" displaced "by the book" as an expression for doing anything formulaic.
As an indication of their popularity President Dwight Eisenhower, who was an amateur painter, and his presidential appointment secretary Thomas Edwin Stephens distributed Picture Craft kits to cabinet secretaries and Oval Office visitors. Once they were completed they were installed in the west wing corridor of the White House and they were referred to as the Stephens Collection. Twenty two of those paintings are now in Wichita, Kansas, at the Eisenhower Library.
Completed Paint By Numbers are often found at yard sales, flea markets and auctions. In relationship to other items they seem to go high. I think it is because they are considered 1950's kitsch and fall in to the black panther clocks, Elvis and Costume dolls catagory.
So maybe it is time for America to drop the snob appeal and go back to something non-electronic that was enjoyable - buy a paint by Number and enjoy yourself once again.