The Artist Behind Paint-By-Numbers Has Died

An artist who created the first paint-by-numbers pictures and helped turn the kits into a worldwide sensation has died.

Dan Robbins, whose works were dismissed by some critics but later celebrated by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, died on Monday in Sylvania, Ohio, said his son, Larry Robbins. He was 93.

He had been in good health until a series of falls in recent months, his son said.

Robbins was working as a package designer 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.

This image provided by Larry Robbins shows a numbered outline of a self portrait of Dan Robbins. Image: (AP, Getty)

"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.

He showed his first attempt - an abstract still life - to his boss who promptly told Robbins he hated it.

But his boss 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.

A saleswoman at Woolworth's Five and Dime store sells paint-by-number kits. (Photo by © Minnesota Historical Society/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

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 commercialised, cookie-cutter culture and fretted that they far outnumbered the original works of art hanging in American homes.

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When his paint-by-numbers days were over, Robbins continued to work in product development, including designing Happy Meal toys for McDonald's.

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.

Image: Getty

"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.