This Christmas, many people will received a Paint-by-Numbers kit as a gift. The kits range in difficulty from simple to very complicated. Though not as popular as they were in the 1950s, the kits still sell well today.

The inspiration for Paint-by-Numbers came from Leonardo da Vinci. In teaching his students to paint, he would sometimes give them exercises that consisted of areas of a canvas marked with numbers that corresponded to certain colors. In 1949, an artist named Dan Robbins modernized da Vinci’s technique.

When Robbins was hired by the Palmer Show Card Paint Co. in Detroit, the company’s owner was looking for ways to sell more paint. Robbins painted a picture, laid a clear sheet of plastic over it, and outlined and numbered areas that were similar in color. If the outline was transferred to heavy paper and little containers of paint were labeled with numbers, someone could recreate the painting by dabbing the corresponding paints in the numbered areas.

The owner liked the idea, but wasn’t convinced that Paint-by-Numbers kits would sell. The company produced some, and sure enough, they didn’t sell. In fact, no major retail chain was willing to take a chance on them.

Eventually, S.S. Kresge placed a big order. Unfortunately, during manufacturing, the paints for two paintings — The Fisherman and The Bullfighter — were switched. When people tried the kits, they created a matador with a blue cape challenging a green bull.

Kresge received so many complaints and demands for refunds, it canceled all future orders. And that would have been the end of Paint-by-Numbers. However, at the March 1951 Toy Fair, the Palmer company made Macy’s an offer it couldn’t refuse.

If Macy’s would buy a shipment of the kits and allow a demonstrator to set up and paint some of the pictures in the store, the Palmer company would buy back any unsold kits.

The Palmer Company then engineered a fake run on the product by giving two sales reps $250 apiece to pass out to family and friends. Everyone was to go to Macy’s on the day of the demonstration and buy some of the $2.50 kits. In a short time, the stock was “sold out.” The sales reps didn’t keep track of who they had given money to, so there was no way to tell how many of the sales were legitimate customers and how many were plants.

It didn’t matter. News of the sellout spread quickly, and soon there were huge demands for the Paint-by-Numbers kits. Sales soared into the millions.

Today, there are Paint-by-Numbers kits you can buy, or it is possible to make your own. There are websites such as PBNify.com that will allow you to turn a photo into a segmented design complete with numbers.

For people who are not interested in actually doing a Paint-by-Numbers, there are many videos online of people doing the kits. Yes, in this age of secondhand experience, you can sit and watch someone else dab spots of paint into little numbered areas. Leonardo would be so proud.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: