Paint by Numbers Home

"Day-to-day family relationships." Testors. Courtesy of Larry Rubin.

The Picture's Place

Comment cards 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.

"decorative ways" 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."

Floral Still Life with Figure 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.

Swiss Village 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."

Winter Shadows 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.

Indian Summer 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.

Antennae 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.

Introduction | Every Man A Rembrandt | The New Leisure | The Picture's Place
The Unfinished Work | Post-a-Reminiscence | Bibliography, Links & Credits