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

Church building has been a landmark on Summerland’s Butler Street

Neighbourhood in Lowertown has gone through changes over the years.

Changing of the guard for South Okanagan midget baseball team

Aqil Samuel is leaving the club and will be replaced by Josh Snider

Clouds Sunday, sunshine and heat Monday

Weather forecast for the Okanagan, Shuswap and Similkameen looks spectacular

Okanagan Ogopogo bathtub race fundraising efforts over the top

In five years the Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has raised over $120,000 for SOSM Foundation

VIDEO: B.C. woman meets biological mother, 38 years later

Mother never gave up hope of finding daughter, despite all the obstacles

Okanagan MMA fighter captures middleweight belt at home

Jordan Cabrejos scores victory at XFC Unbanned, the return of mixed martial arts to Vernon

B.C. VIEWS: Pipelines set to roll as federal politicians posture

Projects to drive B.C., Canadian economy in years ahead

B.C. Lions fall to 1-9 after 13-10 loss to Ticats

Lowly Leos have dropped six straight CFL contests

Man shot near Coalmont airlifted to hospital

A man was shot near Coalmont B.C. Saturday afternoon. The victim was… Continue reading

VIDEO: B.C. woman meets biological mother, 38 years later

Mother never gave up hope of finding daughter, despite all the obstacles

B.C. man who died after rescuing swimmer was known for helping others

Shaun Nugent described as a dad, a coach, a hero and ‘stand-up guy’ at celebration of life

B.C. RCMP plane chases fleeing helicopter as part of major cross-border drug bust

The helicopter eventually landed at a rural property near Chilliwack

Renter of torched Okanagan home a British Army veteran, new Canadian

Owen Wilson was just beginning to settle into life in Canada when the blaze occurred

Most Read