The Picture's Place
By 1954 paint by number had become a certifiable phenomenon. One
art critic ruefully noted that more "number pictures" hung in
American homes than original works of art. Paint by number was
a bridge between old-fashioned domestic pastimes and new consumer
items that promised convenience and ease. It offered amusement,
a sense of accomplishment, and decoration with a handmade look.
In these kits, many people discovered for the first time the liberating
pleasures of creativity. Though the hobby's critics suggested
that paint by number had done more to dim the public's perception
of art than any other commercial product, the hobby's friends
claimed that it raised perceptions where few existed.
The picture's place at home called for careful thought. Kit pamphlets
provided gentle guidance for first-time framers. A painting of
a lake or forest might be grouped with "barometers, lake charts,
guns, rods, or samples of flies and lures." Every room in the
house deserved paintings, the pamphlets said, and even a child's
room might be turned into a private "gallery." Diagrams offered
lessons in "picture grouping," "focal spots," "mass and importance,"
and "proper size balance."
Abstract paintings did not appeal to paint-by-number hobbyists. Surveys
in the 1950s confirmed that many Americans regarded abstract designs
with suspicion, except for the patterns that embellished floor
tile or Formica-or picture frames such as these.
Lovingly framed paintings occupied center stage in many homes,
and professional picture framers reported a booming "numbers"
business. A Toledo, Ohio, framer expressed surprise at the number
of "big businessmen" who brought him paint-by-number paintings.
"They're feeling like Rembrandt himself," he noted, "and they
pick and choose and compare frames. Maybe we've already framed
six as exactly like it as peas in a pod, to each one it's his
own original genuine masterpiece, and deserving of the best frame
to be bought."
Paint by number functioned as a compromise between genuine creativity
and the security of following instructions. Real art began the
moment the hobbyist ignored outlines to blend colors, added or
dropped a detail, or elaborated on a theme. By doing something
that was not art, one could learn what art was. Blurring the boundaries
of art and craft, one hobbyist made this painting her own by removing
the waiting car, the fence along the road, and other details.
Ultimately, the picture's "place" was in the mind's eye, enriching the hobbyist's
view of the world. As one fan put it, "A tree used to be just
a tree to me. Now I often see as many as ten different colors
in a single tree." One of the largest and most detailed paint-by-number
kits, Indian Summer featured a palette of ninety colors, ten of
which may be seen in the tree, right foreground.
By the late 1950s, Americans' primary visual imaginative experience
came from television. In popular parlance, the expression "by
the numbers" displaced "by the book" as a pejorative for mass
culture's most popular and, by definition, formulaic products.
They derived from finely calibrated survey research and the modeling
of predictive media effects that left little to chance.