Friday, May 13, 2011

12 & 13 May 1957 “Everyman an Artist: Paint By Number”

I am reposting yesterday’s post, because something is up with blogger. I hope today the post shows up and people are able to comment.
picturecraftadThe other day, while thumbing through one of my vintage magazines ( a 1954 copy this time) I came across this ad for Picture Craft Paint by Numbers sponsored by the popular Ozzie Nelson family of TV fame. READ MORE

You can’t look at or live in or even consider mid-century life without the Paint By Number craze. craftmaster And in 1951 “Palmer Paint introduced the Craft Master brand which sold over 12 million kits. This public response induced other companies to produce their own versions of paint by number. The Craft Master paint-kit box tops proclaimed, "A BEAUTIFUL OIL PAINTING THE FIRST TIME YOU TRY."
The sheer volume and variety of subject matter would be impossible to represent here, but here are a few.
The iconic dog of the 1950’s, the Poodle, had appeared often as subject matter.PBNpoodle1The horse was probably the most produced animal for PBN.PBNhorsesReligious figures were very popular and often given at Christmas and Holidays as gifts to paint.PBNjesus
Landscapes from city   PBNcity to countryPBNcountry.
And, of course, another mid-century favorite, The clown.PBNclown
Modern Art was becoming a part of the every day as well, though many didn’t begin to understand it all. This Craft Master’s kit by  Dan Robbins.abstract1 Abstract #1 from 1952, was used by an amateur painter in San Francisco and entered & won third place at an art competition.  “The press and the public had a field day noting how judges could not tell the difference between a paint by number work and Modern Art — an art style in its hey-day, but one many people at the time were confused by &/or fed up with.”
PBNMadmagazineIn 1958, the Paint By Number scene was such a part of everyday, even Mad Magazine spoofed it.
You can visit the ONLINE Paint by number Museum HERE.
Today, the Vintage News (below or in the News Archive under 12 May if you are reading this later) will be about Paint by Numbers.

To me, it is almost that first move in mass produced culture. Before the Facebook, Texting, global cable channels, we were very much a separate people. Our local towns and areas could be as different as day to night from a town 50 miles away, let alone across the world. The paint by number was sort of that first foray into that global connection.And in so doing, it created an almost supple flesh of humanity on the skeleton of mass production.

Here are images literally pumped out by the thousands. They are all exact to the amount of paint given, the quality of the brush and the canvas. There is a promise, a hope given to the purchaser that they can be ‘special’ as an artist is. Those who create art have a special quality about them, a mystique. And now you can buy it for $2.95 at the local Woolworths.

I have mixed feelings about paint by numbers. I have always appreciated them from an Art History stand point of the ‘every man’ painting. But, in many ways, it took over the natural original craft many would have found themselves in. Yet, it also lead some to try their hand with a blank canvas and their own paints. Who is to say who or what is art?

In this case, on rainy days, or long summer holidays, people were able to settle in with the smell of oil paints and the meticulous movement of a brush and watch a bucolic country scene or an Modernist piece become revealed to them.

In many ways I see this as that first movement toward humanity trying to make a connection in an ever burgeoning global world. The separatist living is fading and we are all connected all the time to people all over the world. We can say, text, send any information we want at the drop of a hat, really at the push of a button or a finger on a sensitive screen. But, have we anything to say? Is there anything left to share? Are we simply buying machines hoping to create a mode of ‘the special’ with the tools of the ‘everyman’? Can one’s daily feelings be compressed into ;) and have it truly touch our hearts?

So, today, it seems natural, normal almost to long for these mass produced paintings. Because, unlike an old text or an old print out from a computer we might find, they have been touched by the human hand. This painting of a poodle was printed in the millions and given and bought everywhere, but the one we might find in the back of an old shop has been touched by one individual. It was the soft human touch on the machine in the past. It is, in a way, a connection to the beginning of the time we currently live in, where what we send or create might be simply ditgital impulses sent. There will be no treasured boxes of old emails or blogs stored away in attics for some future generation to find and cherish. In many ways they are not even real. So, there is much in our longing to look back at that time in wanting to say, “Wait, hold onto some of your tangible humanity”. But, we know they cannot hear us, but we can take their own little moment of humanity in the ever changing mass produced world and save it. Are we attempting to save ourselves as well?

So, the next time  you are at that tag sale or boot sale, the local jumble or the church bazaar, why not save one of these dear old things. They once held the promise of a fresh young generation hopeful for the coming future of technology and change. And these paintings are in many ways the simple laugh or the smile in that moment, when their back was turned on the new TV or the sound of the radio died away for a moment, or the noise increasing traffic and they were, for that moment, an Artist.


  1. There is a really dive bar close to us that was built in the 40s. The walls (which have a velvet wallpaper) are covered with paint by number paintings, including many, many religious ones. It's like stepping back in time when you go there... And some of the regulars have probably been there since the 50s too! Hahaha

    I actually did a post on it a while ago too.



  2. Paint by number kits were a fun thing to receive as a birthday gift when I was growing up. I can still remember how the paint smelled and the satisfaction of completing an entire painting in a short period of time.
    I think the beauty of PBN was that even someone who had no artisic ability could complete a painting they were proud of.
    Thanks for a great memory.............Denise


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