A Brief History of Paint-By-Numbers

Paint-by-numbers may seem like just a good way to keep kids busy, but they can be a great hobby for adults, as well. In fact, the origin of the technique goes back to Leonardo da Vinci, who taught students the basics of painting with numbered patterns printed on a canvas. That’s what inspired Dan Robbins, an employee at Palmer Paint Company back in the 1950’s. He created his own version, which he called Craft Master, and waited for the orders to roll in.

They didn’t. Retailers didn’t think the kits would sell. To generate interest, the founder of Palmer Paint, Max Klein, decided to stage a demonstration. He convinced Macy’s to give them a chance, and organized reps to get their friends and family to show up and buy kits. As a reward, these “customers” would get $250. Despite the fact that no one bothered to keep track of real customers and fake ones, the kits were a huge hit.

Painters especially loved realist paintings, and not abstract ones. It’s probably because completing a scene of an ocean or castle is much more satisfying than a bunch of squares or lines. The kits continued to sell well in North America, and Palmer Paint expanded to European countries, too.

The fad faded, but paint-by-numbers holds a significance place in popular culture. Max Klein died in 1993, and his daughter donated the archives to the Smithsonian, where they are labeled under the “Paint By Numbers Collection #544.” Dan Robbins died April 1, 2019, at 93 years old.

You can still find paint-by-numbers designed for adults from countless retail sites online. Palmer Paint currently has two kits for sale, including a 60th Anniversary Collector’s Edition of “The Last Supper.” For more variety, check out Paint By Number Co, which has hundreds of paintings of landscapes, animals, photorealistic projects, abstract works, and more.