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HAVE YOU ever done anything “by the numbers”? Have you ever wondered about the origin of this phrase? Or have you actually ever painted by the numbers?
This term “paint by the numbers” and its associated hobby were products of 1950s prosperity and its new Era of Leisure. Derided by critics (“I can tell the difference between money and art. This is money.”), the concept had historical precedent in Leonardo da Vinci (http://wp.me/p2ETap-277). This master of the Renaissance used numbers to identify portions of his works to be completed by assistants.
In 2001, William L. Bird, Jr., curated an exhibition of the genre, “Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s.” This book expands on the theme, with history of Paint by Number kit producers intertwined with social history of the era, and interspersed with dabs of the genre.
In 1950, Detroit’s Palmer Paint Inc. test-marketed its idea of Paint by Number by shipping two designs to a local Kresge variety store (the K as in today’s Kmart). One was Fishermen; the other, The Bullfighter. Unfortunately, color palettes got interchanged and the bullfighter ended up waving a blue cape in front of a green bull. Less chaos and success came later at the 1951 New York Toy Fair.
In autumn 1952, a San Francisco hobbyist entered his rendition of Abstract No. One in a local amateur art contest. Much to the subsequent chagrin of the judges, the Paint by Number piece took third place in the competition.
Paint by Number kits were designed by talented artists who worked within the limitations of complexity and palette, depending on the intended level of the product. Some kits used as few as eight colors, others as many as 90.
On a touching note, one of Palmer Paint’s artists, Adam Grochowski, had survived Auschwitz and Mauthausen by fulfilling commissions from his captors. “Roses and butterflies,” he is cited as saying, “for men who could have killed me at any time.”
By the 1950s, Paint by Number had swept the nation. At its height, Palmer Paint was shipping more than 75,000 kits each day. By 1955, the company had 35 competitors. Markets expanded to Canada, then Britain and the rest of Europe, to Australia and Japan.
Culture hounds bayed that these oil paintings were right up there with pink flamingo lawn ornaments and plastic covers on the living room sofa. Others recognized beneficial aspects of creative leisure.
As author Bird observes, “The real art began the moment the hobbyist ignored outlines to blend adjacent colors, added or dropped a detail, or elaborated upon a theme by extending the composition onto the frame. By doing what art was not supposed to be, one could learn what it was.”
Paint by Number reached a high point in 1956 when Thomas Edwin Stephens, Eisenhower appointment secretary, arranged a White House exhibition that came to be known as the Stephens Collection.
Stephens distributed twenty Paint by Number kits to Eisenhower cabinet members and Oval Office visitors. Among those returning completed oils were FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, special assistant to the president Nelson A. Rockefeller, former president Herbert Hoover and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge.
Even when Pop Art arrived in the 1960s, Paint by the Number survived. Do-It-Yourself (Seascape) by Andy Warhol celebrated the genre in 1963. It was one of Warhol’s last efforts in oil; later works were in reproducible media such as silk screen.
In 1967, Esquire magazine’s cover featured an incomplete Paint by Number illustration of Lyndon B. Johnson. Its cover blurb read, “LBJ’s birthday is August 27th. Color this portrait, send it to him and make him happy.”
Whatever its artistic merit, Paint by Number made a lot of people happy. Judging by http://goo.gl/MYiVEd, it still does. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014