Out Of The Fifties: New fans are painting by the numbers

By Chriss Swaney

Sick and tired of your job? You’re not alone. Nearly half or 44 percent of all American workers are more stressed, sleep deprived and disengaged than ever before.

But a glimmer of hope is beginning to emerge in this bruising environment. The solution is simple. It’s called paint-by-number.

Paint-by-Number Dates to 1950s

Cypress Gardens painting by numbers

Pair of vintage paint by numbers paintings: Cypress Gardens and Southern Belle pond water scene from a 1964 Craft Master kit. Paintings were available from Etsy shop Dairyland Vintage for $74. View more paint by number pieces at Dairyland Vintage on Etsy.com.

Since the 1950s when paint-by-number was launched by Max S. Klein and Dan Robbins, the collectible hobby has continued to make “Every Man a Rembrandt.”

Doctors, veterans, museum archivists, housewives, artists and a throng of simply stressed-out workers are rekindling the joys of the do-it-yourself paint-by-number hobby; a compromise between genuine creativity and the security of following instructions.

Army veteran Frederick Owens says paint-by-number was a lifesaver for him. Last year, Owens was hopeless and homeless, living out of his 2000 Nissan Altima in Kansas City, Missouri.

“Paint-by-number helped me get back on track. It has been great therapy for me,” said Owens, a resident now at the new Northwest Indiana Veterans Village, a 44-unit, three-level residential facility in Gary, Indiana. His artwork adorns the lobby walls. Each piece is a sort of paint-by-number creation. But Owens takes pride that he uses vibrant colors for his animals and stunning landscapes.

Paintings Offer Connection

Wendy Conner, facility manager, said Owens’ work brightens up the lobby and creates a homey atmosphere. “I have six more pieces I want to complete,” said Owens. This wide-eyed artist makes prints of his paint-by-number works when patrons want copies.

Art as therapy is growing in popularity. With more than 16 million Americans facing some sort of stress in their daily lives, experts applaud the renewed interest in the paint-by-number craze.

“There is increased research and studies that show encouraging people to work with art can be both rewarding and stimulating,” said Dana Elmendorf, an assistant professor of art therapy at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. “We are all artists,” she added.

Lawrence Rubin, a psychologist and director of the mental health counseling program at St. Thomas University in Miami, Florida, said his academic office is covered with paint-by-number pictures.

“It’s like cozy wallpaper,” said Rubin. “Paint-by number is comfort food for the eye.”

Viewing paint-by-number prompts nostalgic recollection

Rubin also recalls that he used to hang a cache of paint-by-number works in the waiting room of his old Fort Lauderdale office.

“People would offer fascinating tidbits about themselves after viewing the works. I don’t think I could have gotten that detail so easily in therapy,” he added.

That nostalgia for the good old days seems to be making a fast-paced return. Paint-by-number kits are still flying off the shelves.

People Returning to their Roots

“Sales have been steady, and we see a wide variety of people and age groups purchasing paint-by-

Cabin with creek painting

Extra large painting, cabin with creek, woods, canvas, framed $105.

number kits,” according to Tina Lechner, merchandising manager at Wisconsin-based Herrschners. The kits range in price from $9.99 to $69.99.

Betty York, the parent of two pre-school twin boys from Freeport, Maine, said she finds paint-by-number a soothing way to relax after a day of chasing the kids around the playground. “I have my works hanging in the bedroom and living room.” She prefers doing landscapes and seascapes.

Then there’s Burt Ward of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, who also enjoys the animal paint-by-number kits. The retired steelworker said he always wanted to take an exotic safari to see wild animals. “Now, I can enjoy them right in my den,” he said.

Not Only For The Casual Artist

Not all paint-by-number enthusiasts are amateurs.
Trey Speegle, touted as America’s #1 paint-by-number pop artist, credits the art form with teaching him powerful life lessons and changing his creative approach. In his new book, Yes: Transform Your Life With Color by Number (Regan Arts, 2016), Speegle teaches aspiring artists and readers of all ages to unlock their creativity in a way that is transformative.

“I want people to see my new book as an artistic collaboration and a way to tap into your own imagination and create unique works of art in a way that is fun and relaxing,” said Speegle, who divides his time between New York City and a converted barn in the Catskill Mountains.

The modern-day affinity for paint-by-number was also heightened for collectors when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History featured an elaborate paint-by-number exhibit in 2001. The museum houses some 3,000 pieces.

“I can remember the decorative condition of the neighborhood I grew up in. Paint-by-number was a perfect match with people who wanted to own their own home – the ultimate do-it-yourself,” said William L. Bird Jr., curator emeritus, division of political history at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Paint-by-Number Joins the Sights at The Smithsonian 

Smithsonian Institute exhibition

In 2006, the Smithsonian Institution recognized the popularity of paint by numbers with a special exhibit, Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s, curated by William L. Bird Jr. (Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institute)

And some of the more popular paint-by-number kits arise now from works that hang in the Smithsonian like the familiar “Skating in Central Park” kit or the “Sailboat Racing scene,” according to Jon Bogle, director of marketing communications at Georgia-based Plaid Enterprises Inc., the largest North American supplier of paint-by-number kits. With more than 50 active designs, Bogle said some paint-by-number kits now contain LED lighting.

“There is really no limit to what people can do with their kits,” said Bogle.

Still, the traditional kits sporting lighthouses, old country barns, clowns and pets remain extremely popular.

“My sister offered me $100 last year for my old country barn paint-by-number scene, but I told her I wouldn’t take a cent. It’s the nostalgia I want lovingly framed in my house,” said Susan Froth, a retired schoolteacher from Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.

Similar Appeal, Different Era

Historians report that the new surge in paint-by-number reflects some of the same characteristics that made it popular in the 1950s. Consumers now have more leisure time and are extremely interested in entertainment. The high-tech digital age makes it even more enticing to snatch a paint-by-number scene from an online site.

“That’s why my new color-by-number book with 42 drawings is much more than adult kindergarten.

It’s a way of reconciling emotional conflict and fomenting personal growth,” said Speegle, who also created a huge painting backdrop in 2010 for designer Stella McCartney’s runway Paris show. He also helped the late Michael O’Donoghue, the original head writer for Saturday Night Live, show his 200-paint-by-number collection.

“You never know who you may meet when you indulge in paint-by-number,” said Rod Hurt, a retired guidance counselor from Washington, Pennsylvania. “I ran into my former high school football coach purchasing a paint-by-number kit for his grandchildren.”

In part, art is defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.” While paint by numbers may not be considered true art by art authorities, even though Leonardo da Vinci employed a similar tactic with assistance, it can still bring out the artist in all of us – even if it’s by filling in between the lines. 

Examples Available at Dairyland Vintage and Modern Place  at Etsy.com

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