The creator of painting-by-numbers has died but his greatly-loved work lives on

Everyone could be a Rembrandt!  From the National Museum of American Archives
Everyone could be a Rembrandt! From the National Museum of American Archives

My roaming has recently been rather restricted – to the dark and dusty confines of my attic!

Somewhere up there, in a cardboard box containing a few enduring remnants of my childhood – a tattered teddy bear; the baby’s clothes I wore in an early portrait photo; some Noddy books – there’s my (attempted!) painting of Robin Hood.

Households created their own galleries

Households created their own galleries

The unframed and rather messy painting depicts Sherwood Forest’s legendary outlaw leaping over a stream clasping his bow and arrow, pursued presumably by the Sheriff of Nottingham.

I know that the painting is up there somewhere but I haven’t been able to find it, even though I’ve searched till I’m blue in the face.

I clearly remember painting it, and Robin Hood could well have been blue in the face too if he hadn’t come from one of those early-1950s painting-by-numbers kits!

Sadly, Dan Robbins, the paint-by-number kit creator who made “every man (and child!) a Rembrandt” died aged 93 on April 1st in Sylvania, Ohio.

Updated kit with screwcap jar

Updated kit with screwcap jar

His kit was a popular pastime for children when Roamer was a child.

Most folk of a certain age will remember the process – it came in cardboard-box with an outline drawing awaiting the application of coloured paints.

Every blank space in the drawing carried an allocated number, replicated by a similarly-numbered tube, small-tin or capsule of paint.

When the correct colour was applied to its numbered space – quite a meticulous undertaking for the larger more complicated kits – a final and often quite respectable full-coloured painting emerged.

Dan Robbins' memoirs with Paint-by-Number self portrait

Dan Robbins' memoirs with Paint-by-Number self portrait

The themes that were available in painting-by-number kits were enormously varied.

As well as Robin Hood I remember painting a fully-rigged sailing ship in a storm, but wannabe-artists of all ages could embark on landscapes, still life paintings, a plethora of portraits, big-eyed kittens and puppies, and even replicas of the masters!

The most popular was Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper with the Mona Lisa coming a close second.

Dan Robbins became one of the most reproduced artists in the world, particularly in America, with countless millions of his works being ‘coloured in’ on lounge tables, office desks and kitchen sideboards.

John Daniel Robbins was born in Detroit on May 26, 1925. His car-salesman father was a Jewish immigrant from Russia and his mother was a homemaker.

When he was in his 80s, Dan published his memoirs, entitled ‘Whatever Happened to Paint-By-Numbers: A Humorous (Personal) Account of What It Took to Make Anyone an ‘Artist.’

The front cover of his book contains a self-portrait, painted very appropriately by numbers!

The young and budding artist missed his high school graduation to join the American army and served in Europe during the Second World War.

In 1949 he was hired by Max Klein, president of Detroit’s Palmer Paint Company, to create products such as paint sets for children.

Mulling over a common (unconfirmed) theory that Leonardo da Vinci provided his apprentices with numbered patterns to follow, Robbins wondered if the same idea could be manufactured as a product for anyone who wanted to paint but didn’t have the talent, or the basic implements.

In 1950 he took the idea to his boss, Max Klein, who asked him to work up the idea into a saleable product.

The Craft Master paint-by-number kits were born and in March 1951 the product was showcased at Macy’s department store in New York City.

By 1953 Robbins was in charge of over 70 contributing artists who sketched and numbered thousands of subjects, including ballerinas, celebrities, ships, frisky kittens, the Mona Lisa and all kinds of tropical birds and animals.

Robbins’ wife Estelle “test-painted” each image and by 1954, 12 million kits had been sold.

Starting at $2.50 each, everyone, just as the slogan claimed, could be a Rembrandt!

Soon the kits reached over $80 million a year in sales.

“Year in and year out, the most popular paint-by-number was The Last Supper,” Robbins told a magazine reporter, admitting that his favourite among the 36 paintings he created himself was a rustic water-mill scene.

Each of the early kits included two brushes, up to 90 premixed, numbered paints, and each of the first kit boxes declared optimistically: ‘Every man a Rembrandt’!

Sales reached a high point in 1956 when Thomas Edwin Stephens, one of President Eisenhower’s secretaries arranged a White House exhibition that came to be known as the Stephens Collection.

The collection was hung in a West Wing corridor after 20 kits had been distributed to Eisenhower’s cabinet members and Oval Office VIP visitors.

Among the exhibited works were paint-by-number frames by FBI chief J Edgar Hoover, special assistant to the president Nelson A Rockefeller, former president Herbert Hoover and US ambassador to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge.

Roamer’s Robin Hood was sadly overlooked for inclusion!

There were many other exhibitions, paint-by-numbers clubs, museums and collectors with many hundreds, sometimes thousands, of paint-by-numbers frames adorning their homes.

The paintings sold in auctions, in markets and fairs, and more recently on the web.

In 2001, The Smithsonian exhibited the painting kits and Dan’s work in a show called Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s.

John Daniel Robbins is survived by his wife of 73 years, the former Estelle Shapiro who test-painted his early works, two sons, Michael and Larry, three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.