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"EVERY MAN A REMBRANDT"
THE NEW LEISURE
THE PICTURE'S PLACE
THE UNFINISHED WORK OF PAINT BY NUMBER, 1960-2001
POSTED COMMENTS/"POST A REMINISCENCE"
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Post a Reminiscence

 

Wonderful exhibit. Sure goes to show you picked a true topic of American culture.

Two points: first, by Komar & Melamid's standards, the great Edward Hicks of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, almost hit the classical happy American wanted pictures in the 1830s in his Peaceable Kingdom pictures; plenty of landscape, historical figures, children, & animals, just not enough blue. So close. The Denver, Philadelphia, and San Francisco museums had his pictures last year.

Also, would like to put in a plug for the value of Jon Gnagy's art kits. He had a good system based on fundamentals. I still use his disciplined warm up exercises.

All the best,

Bruce Johnson 
Casper, Wyoming 
July 2, 2001

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To the folks at the Smithsonian,

I read your article on the "paint-by-number" kits in our local paper. I use to get them during Christmas time often of Jesus or the Blessed Virgin Mary. I thought they stop producing them years ago but I'm wrong. Another popular craft item from the 50s, 60s and 70s is the Heathkits that were the way to learn electronics back then. The kits were either ham radio, one of the first large scale robots were produced by Heathkit, even had a IBM look alike computer that you put together as a kit. So far, I found one or two companies that manufacture robot kits.

Sincerely yours, 

Thomas O'Brien 
July 5, 2001

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This summer I purchased [for] my daughters (8 and 10) their first "real" paint-by-number kits. What a great rainy day, too-much-sun-at-the-beach-to-go-back-outside activity for them to explore. I have great memories of dabbling in the "arts" with these kits as a child. Who would have thought that a mass of shapes, numbers and colors would turn into a galloping horse! Thanks for supporting this primitive art form with the exhibit!

Suzie Veazey 
July 6, 2001

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Thank you for such a thought provoking and rich exhibition. I remember my first paint by numbers project at ten years of age, and the dismay I felt since I could not stay without the lines and the paint seemed to get bumpy and then of course the little brush hairs got stuck on the canvas surface. But I kept at it. Then when I was 16 I went to New York City for the first time on a field trip from high school and visited art museums. Then in my 20s I tried to complete the "Famous Artists" course . . . then as a classic late bloomer started college in my 3rd decade of life, then went to art school and then and then . . . and I never knew it had all started with a Paint by Numbers kit!

Virginia Huerfeld 
Delmar, New York 
July 12, 2001

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My father was an alcoholic, an unhappy man overwhelmed by the problems of life. By the time he was 35 he had five children, and worked hard as a bricklayer, but drink was always a problem. Now and then he'd swear off and go on the wagon, promising to be a better father and husband. One spring, he discovered paint by numbers, and took it to be his salvation. Instead of going to the bars, he'd hurry home on Friday night, set up the paints in the livingroom of our one bedroom apartment, and get to work. When he was sober, he was a meticulous man. I remember him slicing open a container of paint with a razor blade (the paint container looked like a large capsule of medicine to me and the array of improbable colors was amazing), mixing the paint carefully, and starting to work. He was a heavy smoker, and the cigarette smoke, mixed with the smell of the paint, and later in the evening, the paint thinner, filled the room with a calm perfume, the scent of "a normal home," one free from the usual Friday evening strife. He'd use one color until it was gone, then go on to the next. I was amazed that "they" (the people who made the kits) knew exactly how much of each color to put into each container. It always seemed to me, as I'd sit there watching him work, that there was "just enough" paint in each container to cover all the areas that called for that color. That spring and summer, and into the fall, the house was peaceful on the weekends. He painted winter landscapes, dogs, horses, the head of Christ, the last Supper, the Virgin Mother. My mother seemed happier too, and I loved being able to hang out with him, looking over his shoulder, getting a vicarious thrill as each painting magically took shape. I was so fascinated, that my parents bought me a paint by numbers kit for my birthday. My subject was the head of a boxer dog, but as I began to set up the kit for my first attempt at "art," I was almost paralyzed by anxiety. My father's paintings always looked perfect. He always "stayed in the lines." Each stroke contained the perfect amount of paint, and when his compositions were finished, they looked like pictures from a magazine. There wasn't one false stroke, the paint was perfectly smooth, uniform and flat. I knew I could never do anything that good, and I sat there for hours staring at the "blank" canvas. The final blow was given by my little brother, who had a way of looking at the world that often made me uneasy. "You don't have to stay in the lines," he said. "You don't even have to use they colors they say to. You can paint it however you want." The thought was too much for my brain to process. I didn't have to follow the rules. I could do anything I wanted to do. I could paint a blue dog, or a green dog, or a rabid dog drooling white paint. It was true. I could do whatever I wanted to do. My brain went into overload. I was partially crushed, partially relieved when I decided not to paint the dog at all. I also wondered how my brother, younger than I was by two years, "knew" that you didn't have to follow the rules. Things like that never occurred to me. In my life, I always stayed between the lines. When it became clear I wasn't going to use my kit, my mother re-wrapped it and gave it to one of my cousins for Christmas.

Eventually, as always happened, someone "ruined" my father's paint by numbers experience. Maybe there wasn't enough paint to complete a panel, maybe someone bumped the table as he was working and he spilled some paint, maybe one of us criticized his art work, it could have been anything. But one night the paint by numbers kit he was working on got tossed in the trash, and he started drinking again. But for a couple of months one year, he was a changed man, seemingly at peace with himself and my mother and the rest of us. He almost purred with pleasure when he showed us a finished painting. We'd all gather around to compliment his artistic talent and he'd laugh and hug us and toast us with a glass of Coke or Pepsi. To this day, the scent of oil paint brings back those long summer evenings, my father squinting through the cigarette smoke, as he applied another long perfect brush stroke to the halo of Christ while I watched in awe and the apartment experienced another evening of calm.

j. poet 
San Francisco 
July 14, 2001

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In 1957 I was pregnant with my first child. I was not working and my husband was in the service . . . I had never done any painting or drawing of any kind. He came home one day and presented me with a Paint-by-number kit . . . to do while I was waiting for our child . . . It gave me a lot of satisfaction and it passed the time the purpose for which he had given it to me . . . some 40 years have passed and I still have the painting I did all those years ago . . .

Meryl 
July 22, 2001

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I picked up the Paint By Numbers hobby 2 years ago and have completed 12 paintings. It is a very relaxing and enjoyable hobby. There are numerous companies still producing PBN kits in varying degrees of difficulty. A magnifying lamp will help with the more detailed paintings.

William Dratler 
Springfield, Virginia 
July 22, 2001

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In the early 50s I painted only one of the "paint by number" kits and I still have it to this day. I discovered it recently while cleaning out some old boxes. I remember that at the time I did the painting, it was my intention to do more of them as it was a fun experience. My painting is a Japanese maiden in a garden holding a parasol. I am thinking that I will have it framed, as it is still in perfect condition . . .

S. A. Mosier 
Chattanooga, TN 
July 24, 2001

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. . . and then everyone wonders why Europe laughs at North America

Jacob Pospiesznski 
July 28, 2001

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I fondly remember paint-by-number from growing up in the 50s and 60s. It was magical! My mother was an avid PBN fan, she did the two scenes you show on your opening page, and probably 30% of the examples I just saw in the museum display. Probably my favorite PBN is the Last Supper, by da Vinci. This work, done of course by my mother, hung in our dining room for all the years I lived at home.

These self-made crafts are very typical of the do-it-yourself era of the 50s and the 60s Americans used their new-found leisure time to explore capabilities they would never have been able to realize without the kits made available by vendors like Art Craft. I could never paint any kind of picture using blank canvas and oils. Nor could I make a grandfather clock, a radio, a tv, or perhaps even a birdhouse. All these things were brought within our reach by the do-it-yourself industry. The thing I wonder is, what happened to our leisure time? Where did it go?

Mike McDermott 
August 8, 2001

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My name is Vicki from Pa. I loved this it brought back a memory for me. My parents never agreed on anything and did divorce. But the one thing for some odd reason they had hanging in their bedroom two paint by no. pictures of sailboats. Each one of them did one I always thought it was the oddest thing. This site is very nice. It brings a smile for the old ones such as myself.

August 13, 2001

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As a seven-year-old, I was a military dependent in Izmir, Turkey. My family was from New England, and this seacoast city is hot, dry, and totally devoid of anything resembling the New England coast.

I always loved to draw: my mother said that if I was given a set of crayons as a two-year-old, it would occupy me for hours. That Christmas in Turkey, they hit upon the perfect present for a budding artist, and I received a pant-by-numbers kit. The name of the painting was "Cabin in the Woods." I thought the idea was cute; even at that age I recognized that these kits were not art or even art training, but I made no attempt to enlighten my parents. Still, it was fun, since I had never worked with oils or with much color before. I finished the painting in about four days, much to the pride of my father, since that vindicated his theory that I had great art talent. The picture hung in my room, and when we returned to the U.S., it continued to hang on my bedroom wall.

I liked this picture. While in Turkey, it gave me a small reminder of the winters of home. It also was always there, and was a visual focus for daydreams, of living in the north woods (whatever that was), adventuring in the great outdoors, braving the elements in complete freedom, miles from anywhere and especially, miles from any overbearing adults. My mother had wanted to throw it out before returning to the states, since packing and shipping household goods was expensive. I insisted that it come back, and it hung in my room in my grandfather's house, where we now lived, until I left for college.

When my parents moved to a new house after my grandfather died, the picture mysteriously ended up in my father's new study, next to his desk. To me, it seemed out of place. In this location, it was obviously not art, it wasn't even a good design. It only looked right in my bedroom, with all the memories it could invoke. Of course, in this house, I had no bedroom any longer. My father died a few years ago, and in the process of cleaning out, I went looking for that picture. To my dismay, my mother had thrown it out several years earlier, since the frame was broken and his desk was being removed. It was then that I realized how much this simple, mass-produced piece of American kitsch meant to me.

I am nearly sixty, and now prowl yard sales and old shops in large cities, hoping to find this kit or the picture that someone may have painted. It doesn't matter that I didn't paint it: after all, you could hardly make an error following the paint-by-numbers and there is no real talent to it.

Someday I will find this picture, and it will invoke for me the wonderful images that true art, great art, cannot even touch.

Peter McVay 
August 13, 2001

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Twice during the 50s and 60s my Father was hospitalized with TB. During those long years of recovery, he was introduced to paint by number. He had never painted anything but a house, but managed to produce outstanding paintings including Indian Summer which still hangs in my Mother's assisted living residence today. It was a bit difficult to appreciate his efforts then, but these paintings have become very precious in the 30 years since he passed away (his anniversary is today). I can't imagine how difficult it was to pass the long days so far away from his family. I'm sure the detailed painting helped immensely to get through those years.

(Mrs.) Marian Kovacs 
Sarasota, FL 
August 17, 2001

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Yes, I did paint by the number kits as a youngster. I always had an avid interest in art - forever was I doodling or sketching. I believe my parents bought the first one, and my grandmother several more. My aunt, her daughter, painted them all the time. My grandmother still has several that my aunt did, hanging on her walls. The one I remember the best was the "Last Supper" and how long it took my aunt to do.

Thinking back, I realize how this might actually have inspired some people to go on and create a painting on their own, after completing a "paint by number" of a great artwork, or at the very least, exposed them to art they might otherwise not have access to. Remember the "paint by number" on VELVET? Now, weren't those something!

Susan Barr 
Evansville, IN 
August 19, 2001

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Thank you for a wonderful trip back in time. I'm a baby boomer by only a couple of weeks, having been born in December, 1964. Still, I remember PBN kits were still being sold in the local Woolworth's 5 &10 in my 1975-era, small Missouri hometown.

I did only one kit, as we lived in a small apartment and the smell of the oil paint and linseed oil made my mother nauseated. I remember that it was a woodland scene with a small farmhouse in the distant background. I had no talent then for painting, but went on to build plastic model car and plane kits, took up wood carving and just recently, stained glass crafting.

Thanks for the look back.

Sincerely, 

Tim Erickson Malden
Massachusetts 
August 23, 2001

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I had no idea that adults did paint by number! Our mother and father introduced my brother and me to the hobby in the late 1950s but they never did any. I loved it and painted many, including a huge "Blue Boy." My brother, four years younger than I probably did more creative paintings as he couldn't follow the numbers as well at first and usually only did them when he was sick in bed with a cold. He had a humidifier running and the end result was usually some running and blended colors. Our parents decorated the large expanse of white walls in our garage with all of our artwork; my "Blue Boy" and one of David's best were in the family room and kitchen, not framed, just propped on top of a bookcase or cupboard. My mother died a couple of years ago and I don't know what we did with the paintings; I'm calling David about it today. I agree with the comment I read on your Web page; the paintings did teach me to see objects as composed of many hues and colors and later, when I did crewel work, I changed patterns to more fully show these variations. I can't see that the paint by numbers would ever stifle someone's creativity. Rather, it provided a way for people to connect to art in a way they never had before, encourage them to visit "the real thing" at their local galleries and use the medium of an artist to create something they were proud of. My mother also gave us large pieces of blank paper, crayons, paint, chalk on which we could draw to our hearts' content. Paint by numbers wasn't the exclusive artwork we did. When my own boys were young I never thought to give them the kits to try; were they still available in stores? I wonder why I didn't think of paint by numbers? Seeing your Web page brings thoughts of these paintings to mind for the first time in years.

Thanks for the memories. 

Betsy Holzgraf 
August 24, 2001

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Local history in Decatur, Il., is that paint by number was a first here in Decatur. The company was Picture Craft. Do you have any information on this? There are kits from this company from the 1940s. If anybody there knows anything about this, please share the info with me.

Thanks,

Dayle Irwin 
Decatur Public Library 
Decatur, IL

[Curator's note: We would like very much to hear from anyone with information about the Picture Craft Company of Decatur, Illinois, and the commercial artist Royce Caron, who is believed to have created Picture Craft's earliest rolled canvas kit painting subjects, marked "copyright 1949." WLB]

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What great memories this site has brought back to me.

I was a teenager when Paint By Number came out. I bought one and tried it, was it ever fun, I was an Artist. I bought many different kits over the next several years. I would hang "My Works of ART" and was so proud.

Somehow over the years in moving, my pictures are gone! It was such a rewarding hobby. I truly look forward to looking over the exhibit this fall when I get to the Museum.

Marcia Hunt 
Shallotte, NC 
August 26, 2001

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I have wonderful memories of time spent using paint by number sets - I must admit that the popularity of the TV show John Nagy was probable an outgrowth of this Phenom. Thanks for reminding me of the simple days of my youth. 

Gail Schor 
Brooklyn, NY 
August 28, 2001

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This exhibit would be worth a trip to Washington!

When I heard about the exhibit on the Today show, I promptly went to the Smithsonian Institution web site. What a wonderful remembrance! I was born in 1950. I remember saving my pennies to buy a paint-by-number set. I painted animals, landscapes, and other wonderful scenes. The most beautiful were the snow scenes - we didn't see much snow in Atlanta, so I could paint and dream about snowy winter days. The oil-based paint had such a distinctive odor - I can almost smell it now. I would happily buy paint-by-number sets now if they were available. My nieces and nephews should experience this introduction to "art." And their aunt would likely join them in the fun. Thanks for a great tribute to Americana - I hope to visit the Smithsonian to see the exhibit.

Sue Johnson 
Atlanta, Georgia 
August 30, 2001

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My grandfather, John E. Bennett, worked at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Ft. Madison, IA, for many years, the last 9 as warden, and retired in 1969. He and my grandmother had a pair of PBNs that had been painted by one of the inmates (pretty well, I might add) and given to Grandpa as a gift, which they displayed proudly in their living room until my aunt convinced Grandma that she really should have "better" art on her walls, in about 1986. Grandma offered them to me (I had been married for only a year or so, and she knew that our home was pretty much furnished in Early Attic), and I gladly took them, because they reminded me of the place I had loved to visit as a child. I hung them in my living room and pretty soon didn't even really notice them any more...until the day my brother-in-law, in the middle of a conversation in that room, got a really funny look on his face, and said, hesitantly, "Are those paint-by-number pictures?!?!" He couldn't believe that I actually had them hanging in the most formal room in the house!

Sadly, I succumbed to the ridicule, and they're now in my attic . . . but after this little trip down memory lane, I just might resurrect them!

Lori 
Iowa 
August 30, 2001

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I fondly remember painting those lovely pictures. I carefully worked each one and then presented them to my grandmothers for display on their walls. That was more than forty years ago. Recently my grandmother passed away and, while sitting in the living room of her home, I noticed one of my covered bridges still hanging on the wall! Today I am known as one of the best counted cross stitchers in the area. Isn't that hobby just about the same as paint-by-number?

Roger Morton 
Edmond, OK 
August 31, 2001

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