Creator of paint-by-numbers dies

Dan Robbins has died at the age of 93

Dan Robbins, an artist who created the first paint-by-numbers pictures and helped turn the kits into an American sensation during the 1950s, has died. He was 93.

Robbins, whose works were dismissed by some critics but later celebrated by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, died Monday in Sylvania, Ohio, said his son, Larry Robbins.

He had been in good health until a series of falls in recent months, his son said.

Robbins was working as a package designer for the Palmer Paint Company in Detroit when he came up with the idea for paint-by-numbers in the late 1940s. He said his inspiration came from Leonardo da Vinci.

“I remembered hearing that Leonardo used numbered background patterns for his students and apprentices, and I decided to try something like that,” Robbins said in 2004.

READ MORE: District of Lake Country jokingly responds with Bob Ross meme to pothole comments

He showed his first attempt — an abstract still life — to his boss, Max Klein, who promptly told Robbins he hated it.

But Klein saw potential with the overall concept and told Robbins to come up with something people would want to paint. The first versions were of landscapes, and then he branched out to horses, puppies and kittens.

“I did the first 30 or 35 subjects myself, then I started farming them out to other artists,” said Robbins, who mainly stuck to landscapes.

While the Craft Master paint-by-numbers kits weren’t embraced initially, sales quickly took off and peaked at 20 million in 1955. Within a few years, though, the market was flooded, sales dropped and Klein sold the company.

Together, Robbins helped create slices of Americana that are still collected and are found framed in homes across the nation. Palmer still sells at least two kits: one remembering the Sept. 11 attacks and the other depicting the Last Supper.

“We like to think dad was one of the most exhibited artists in the world,” said Larry Robbins. “He enjoyed hearing from everyday people. He had a whole box of fan letters.”

He noted his father’s accomplishments are still on display at the Detroit Historical Museum, “right down from Henry Ford,” his son said.

Robbins, who spent much of his life in the Detroit area, was modest about his work and didn’t get too bothered by those who mocked the paintings.

Critics came to view the paint-by-numbers kits as a metaphor for a commercialized, cookie-cutter culture and fretted that they far outnumbered the original works of art hanging in American homes, said William Lawrence Bird Jr., curator of the 2001 exhibition at the National Museum of American History.

Some within the museum questioned the idea of celebrating the paint-by-numbers craze and its impact on art, at least until the crowds showed up, Bird said.

“He would say, ‘I didn’t think of this, Leonardo did,”’ Bird said. “He was amused that people were collecting them.”

When his paint-by-numbers days were over, Robbins continued to work in product development, including designing Happy Meal toys for McDonald’s, Bird said.

Robbins, who wrote a book, “Whatever Happened to Paint-by-Numbers,” said at the exhibition’s April 2001 opening in Washington that his creation survived despite the critics.

READ MORE: East Coast painter and subversive feminist, Mary Pratt dies

“I never claim that painting by number is art,” he said. “But it is the experience of art, and it brings that experience to the individual who would normally not pick up a brush, not dip it in paint. That’s what it does.”

Robbins is survived by his wife, Estelle, sons Michael and Larry, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

———

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Young Hearts Triathlon

Annual event saw racers of all ages swim, bike, and run their way to a cheering finish line on Saturday, July 13th

Museum presents old time film festival

Series of six films Saturday, July 20th through Sunday, July 21st at museum

Peddling the practice of bikepacking

Growing sport of backcountry biking in the Valley

Balancing aesthetics and affordability in Canal Flats

Canal Flats Council briefs of July 8th

Rich the Vegan scoots across Canada for the animals

Rich Adams is riding his push scooter across Canada to bring awareness to the dog meat trade in Asia

Body, burning truck found near northern B.C. town

RCMP unsure if the two separate discoveries are related

Couple found dead along northern B.C. highway in double homicide

Woman from the U.S. and man from Australia found dead near Liard Hot Springs

UPDATE: West Kelowna fawn euthanized, not claimed by sanctuary

Gilbert the deer has been euthanized after a suitable home was not found in time

BC Wildfire Service warns wet weather no reason to be complacent

Fire risk currently low for much of B.C. compared to same time over last two years.

Bank of Canada lowers qualifying rate used in mortgage stress tests

Home sales softened last year after the federal government introduced new stress test rules for uninsured mortgages

B.C. man pleads guilty in snake venom death of toddler

Plea comes more than five years after the incident in North Vancouver

Trudeau says Ottawa open to proposals for B.C. refinery as gas prices soar

Prime minister says he knows B.C. residents are struggling and the federal government is open to ideas

Clock’s ticking to share how you feel about Daylight Saving Time in B.C.

Provincial public survey ends at 4 p.m. on Friday

Most Read