Art has evolved with technology, with new techniques and materials getting integrated into pieces as they are developed. Despite this, the world of art also seems to have an eye for history, with many of the techniques from the past still being used and never really lost. Sometimes, however, an art development comes along that can and does become supplanted by technology. Paint By Numbers kits are just such a technique. The kits were invented, developed and marketed in 1950 by Max S. Klein and Dan Robbins. Klein was an engineer and owner of the Palmer Paint Company of Detroit, Michigan and Robbins was a commercial artist.
The popularity of the kits lasted at the least up into the 1980s, but now they have faded away. I don’t think that the desire for the hobby art project has gotten any less, instead the act of manually painting pictures has been replaced by the digital.
According to the Smithsonian American History Museum:
The decade of the 1950s was one of prosperity. Rising incomes and shorter workweeks gave Americans more leisure and more money to spend. Business was happy to supply this market with leisure-time products-from television sets to barbecue grills to paint-by-number kits. A new mass culture based on consumerism took shape. Writing in Life magazine in the late 1950s, cultural critic Russell Lynes set out to describe the popular pastimes of the “new leisure.” He observed that the usual markers of class-education, wealth, and breeding-no longer applied. The one thing that mattered was something that everyone had. That something, Lynes explained, was free time. In postwar America, class had become a matter of how one spent his or her free time.
The simulation of creative experience was a key selling point for paint by number. (americanhistory.si.edu)
Another reason for this new found leisure time was the return of the women of American from the wartime workforce back into the home. (pinestreetartworks.com) The desire to fill free time with a ‘stimulating creative experience’ has not diminished in recent years, simply been replaced. Now the ubiquitous DSLR melded with Photoshop effects are the creative outlet of choice, making anyone with a photogenic topic and mastery of a few digital skills a master photographer. No more is ‘Every Man a Rembrandt!’; instead it is ‘Ansel Adams for All!’
Now we could certainly debate the question of whether or not paint by numbers qualify as ‘art’–I think that even a guided creative experience is still a creative experience, and so art it is indeed. Even though they are to some extent ‘fill-in-the-blank’, no two will every be exactly alike, and will be shaped by the person wielding the brush. So too a photo of a flower is shaped by the person behind the lens. Certainly there is ample room for debates on quality of different pieces, but isn’t that why we have art critics?
Is digital photography and editing to blame for the disappearance of these kits? What ever happened to Paint By Numbers?