The first patent for the paint by numbers technique was filed in 1923. But the famous crafters’ take on painting didn’t become a marketable product until 1951. The Palmer Show Card Paint Company developed the “Craft Master Brand”, which would go on to sell over 12 million paint by numbers kits worldwide. The success of the “Craft Master Brand” and paint by numbers led to a barrage of other companies creating similar iterations of the same product.
As a traditionally trained artist, I’ve never used a paint by numbers kit. I was handed a paint brush from a very early age. I never saw painting as something only certain people could do. But, I had the privilege of an artist mother, and access to any art material you can name. I grew up with a “Well how hard could that be?” attitude. And by the age of six, I was painting the baseboards in my house while mom painted the walls. Mostly because she hated painting the baseboards. But, I was just happy to participate. And in turn, I learned the basics of what paint by numbers teaches through a Mr. Miyagi-type teaching experience.
So much of rendering any art form comes down to a cocktail of patience, hard work, dexterity, and a little bit of math. The creative components are the hard part. The rest is just practice. So what might seem like a menial task (baseboards), gave a child (me) confidence and dexterity to develop my skillset.
Last year’s lockdown got me thinking about the resurgence of “craft art” and its implications on the “fine art” market and everywhere in between. So we’re going to break down the good, the bad, and the ugly of paint by numbers.
The hardest part of any new endeavor is the first step. A cliché, I know, but hey if the shoe fits. Paint by numbers gets rid of several steps that stop any first time painter. Finding the right materials and choosing an image. There’s a reason that every beginning level college painting class will have you paint a master. You learn from breaking down an image. Paint by numbers does that for you mathematically by shape and color. You can scoff at it, but, every artist that’s creating artwork from a reference started out doing this. They graphed out an image and broke it down into quadrants. And then after years of practice this technique became embedded in their brain to the point they didn’t need that grid anymore.
Paint by numbers takes away a couple of hard steps. Removing these steps can create a crutch which will make it hard for beginners to replicate something on their own. It’s a bit like putting someone on a moving bike before teaching them the importance of balance. But, I believe it’s better to build the confidence towards creating on your own than never trying at all.
While paint by numbers can be a great access point for art enthusiasts who want to dip their toes into the painted waters, the image choices can be downright ugly. But, this isn’t the consumer’s fault! And in fact, it’s a good example of how the curation of products can develop or under-develop an audience’s understanding.
So while the majority of the art world might not agree with these assessments, I scream poppycock! Pick up that brush and get painting. The world is better off with more people that love and appreciate the art around them. And it’s a lot easier to appreciate it once you’ve tried it.