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

Digging down deep reveals quirky bits of Chilliwack history

Algra Bros. crews setting aside some of the funkier finds from the Downtown Chilliwack site

Chilliwack school board making effort to foster better relationships

Board reaching out to parents via dinner event, and online forum

New housing reports will add to data Chilliwack is already collecting

Province of B.C. is providing funding to help communities collect and analyze housing data

Chilliwack’s Ben Hagkull leads B.C. Royals into Canadian Wheelchair Basketball League nationals

B.C. Wheelchair Basketball added Hagkull to the roster for the tournament in Prince Edward Island.

PHOTO: Pollination time

Hyacinths attract bees looking for pollen

Homeless activists outside Notre Dame demand ‘a roof too’

Wealthy people have donated millions to effort to rebuild cathedral after devastating fire

PHOTOS: Green Party Leader Elizabeth May says ‘I do’ on Earth Day

May and John Kidder got married Monday morning in Victoria

Victims injured in Lower Mainland deck collapse ranged from 15 to 83 years old

Victim Services staff have reached out to those hurt and their families

‘Ghost restaurants’ cooked up by Joseph Richard Group to meet demand of delivered food

The new Meal Ticket Brands venture aims to ‘disrupt’ the local restaurant industry

Sri Lanka invokes war-time military powers after nearly 300 killed in Easter bombings

Sri Lanka’s minister of tourism says 39 foreign tourists were killed in the Easter Sunday attacks

Torched SUV linked to Vancouver’s fourth homicide

Manoj Kumar, 30, was found dead from gunshot wounds in the Kitsilano neighbourhood

Multiple sailing waits as BC Ferries deals with Easter Monday traffic

89 extra sailings had been added to the long weekend schedule

Ex-mayor of northern village claims its drivers are overpaying ICBC $1,800 a year

Darcy Repen says data shows Telkwa households are being ripped off for car insurance

Deadly synthetic drug found in Kamloops that puts users in ‘zombielike’ state

Interior Health warning says substance causes ‘speedy, trippy-like symptoms’ and hallucinations

Most Read