Our US Sales Manager Sarah Carnline was clearing out a cupboard two weeks ago when she discovered a charming and rather retro ‘painting-by-numbers’ kit! Sarah sent a few pictures to colleagues only hours before the death was announced of the inventor Dan Robbins at the age of 93.

It would be all too easy for high-end Artists’ paint manufacturers such as Cranfield to be dismissive of Robbins’ work, but he had a significant impact on the pop culture of the 1950s and ’60s and if we include the users of his products, you might say Dan is the most exhibited artist in the world!
Taking paint-by-numbers from an idea to reality was not as easy as Robbins had imagined. A number of questions puzzled him. What would adults want to paint and how difficult should the paintings be to complete? How to contain the paints and what kind of canvas? And there were philosophical arguments about whether dividing a subject up into numbered areas to paint was an affront to the concept of “art”.

After tempering his enthusiasm with a lot of patience and hard work Dan designed six kits and Craft Master was born.

Initially sales were disappointing but it was not long before Robbins developed marketing plans that sent the kits flying off the shelves. Most famous of these was the giant billboard of a blank paint-by-number. Benches were set up for people to watch as each day another colour was added.

Soon Robbins was launching an ever expanding series of kits and training a whole new crop of paint-by-number designers. Within two years, he had gone from a freelance contractor to head of art direction for the most profitable division of Palmer Paints.

Now anyone with the time and dedication could take a brush to canvas (and later, cardboard panels) and confidently create art. Millions were doing just that. Leonardo da Vinci’s trick might not have groomed a generation of geniuses in the Renaissance, but in Robbins’ hands, the paint-by-numbers concept won over a generation of hobbyists and as his fan letters attested, he inspired legions of new artists. He also made painting and displaying art more democratic than anyone could have imagined.