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‘Paint-by-the-numbers’ borrowed from da Vinci

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WASHINGTON — Fifty-two years ago, artist Dan Robbins borrowed an idea from Leonardo da Vinci and launched an American craze.

He called it painting by numbers. Just three years after Robbins and Palmer Show Card Paint Co. introduced paint-by-numbers kits to the American hobby market, consumer demand had created an $80 million annual business.

At the height of its popularity in the mid-1950s, millions of Americans, including President Dwight Eisenhower, singer Ethel Merman and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, were filling in preprinted canvases with dabs of paint from tiny, numerically coded pots.

Pop-art artists like Andy Warhol used the paint-by-numbers fad as a source of material for their own work. In the early 1960s, Warhol produced a series of deliberately half-finished paint-by-numbers canvases titled "Do It Yourself."

The paint-by-numbers craze had a rallying cry of "Every man a Rembrandt!" But the craze eventually subsided, although it never totally vanished.

Today, Craft House International, based in Toledo, Ohio, and heir to the original Craft Master paint-by-numbers business, sells 71 different kits through hobby shops and mass merchandisers, such as Wal-Mart and Kmart.

"It's still a mainstay of our product line," said Karen Thompson, Craft House's marketing manager.

The original paint-by-numbers canvases — painted or unpainted — also have become hot collectible items, with some fetching hundreds of dollars from nostalgic baby boomers. One serious enthusiast, Larry Rubin of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., publishes a quarterly newsletter called "By the Numbers."

Computers have added a new dimension to the phenomenon. Several companies now offer to turn a photo or illustration into a numbered canvas and provide up to 42 different colors that a customer can use to fill it in.

And now the paint-by-numbers phenomenon is the subject of a new exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. The exhibition, much of which can be seen online www.americanhistory.si.edu/paint, celebrates this all-American success story.

It also investigates the "cultural fault line" it created between consumers who loved the kits and critics such as one in American Artist magazine who complained it was art for "morons."

Asked why he believes paint-by-numbers struck such a responsive chord among Americans, Robbins, who started it all, said: "I think that paint-by-numbers is a vicarious art experience, something people do much in the same way they sing along with Frank Sinatra, play the music of George Gershwin or act in plays by Neil Simon."

When he first came up with the idea in 1949, Robbins was a new employee of the Palmer Show Card Paint Co. of Detroit, and the owner was looking for ways to increase the company's product line.

"I remembered hearing about how Leonardo da Vinci would challenge his own students or apprentices with creative assignments," Robbins recalls in his book, "Whatever Happened to Paint-By Numbers?" (Possum Hill Press, $16.95).

"He would hand out numbered patterns indicating where certain colors should be used in specific projects such as underpainting, preliminary background colors or some lesser works that did not require his immediate attention.

"What a great idea! Why not do the same thing for anyone who wants to paint their own picture but can't?" writes Robbins, who stresses that the actual system was created by da Vinci.

But first Robbins had to convince company owner Max Klein that paint-by-numbers could make some money. To show how it would work, Robbins painted "Abstract No. 1," then broke it down into distinct areas of color and keyed each one to a particular paint color.

Klein hated "Abstract No. 1." But he loved the idea and gave Robbins the go-ahead to pursue a line of paint-by-number kits.

Once in hand in late 1950, they were rushed to stores in Detroit for a test run. But in their haste, Palmer employees had mixed up the paints for two different kits.

As Robbins recalls it, "'The Bullfighter' was wearing brown tights, waving a blue cape and fighting a green bull," while " 'The Fisherman' had a red sky, yellow water and pink boats."

Still, Klein and Robbins really believed they had a financial winner and decided to try to jump-start national sales of kits at the March 1951 Toy Fair. To ensure that their efforts were at least partly successful, Klein actually spent about $500 paying people to buy kits at a Macy's demonstration.

It was probably unnecessary because the public loved the kits. From then on, Palmer was in a mad dash to keep up with demand, hiring dozens of artists to come up with new subjects and help the company stay ahead of the nearly three-dozen competitors that sprang up.