By Lynn Van Matre, Tribune Staff Writer.
Published: Monday, January 18, 1999

Tucked away in a suburban townhouse basement, the vintage paint-by-numbers picture of an off-kilter pitcher and dish of fruit could be just another remnant of the 1950s, when the do-it-yourself art craze captivated Americans along with the Hula-Hoop and TV dinners.

But the abstract oil painting in Dan Robbins' Oak Brook basement studio isn't just any old paint-by-numbers picture. It's ground zero for the '50s fad and arguably an icon of the paint-by-numbers phenomenon, now enjoying a revival as a growing number of collectors seek vintage samples of the art at garage sales, flea markets and Internet auction sites.

"Some of the paintings go for $25 or even $50," mused Robbins, whose designs spawned the paint-by-numbers craze nearly 50 years ago. "It still surprises me."

In 1949, when he was a 24-year-old children's coloring book illustrator and designer at the Palmer Paint company in Detroit, Robbins came up with the idea for a paint-by-numbers kit that the firm could market to adults. His boss, company owner Max Klein, wasn't crazy about Robbins' abstract pitcher-and-fruit prototype and sent him back to the drawing board to come up with some pictures that "people actually would like to paint," such as landscapes and kittens.

Robbins complied, and a year or so later the company introduced its Craft Master paint-by- number kits. Millions were sold before the fad, which spawned countless imitators, ran its course and fell out of vogue in the late 1950s.

Now, with the 50th anniversary of the phenomenon just around the corner and a vintage paint-by-numbers exhibit under discussion at the Smithsonian Institution, Robbins has written "Whatever Happened to Paint-By-Numbers?" (Possum Hill Press), a humorous account of his role in the pop culture craze.

Calling himself the "paint-by-numbers guru," the cheerful and energetic Robbins--who now designs premiums for fast-food franchises--has hit the road in recent weeks to reminisce, sign books and autograph old paint-by-numbers creations. An exhibit of Robbins' vintage paint-by-numbers oils is on display throughout January at Borders in Oak Brook, and he will do a book signing Jan. 24 at Barnes and Noble in Bloomingdale.

"A lot of people who come to my book signings bring paint-by-numbers paintings to show me," Robbins said. "They tell me about how their father or mother painted the picture or they talk about how they did it themselves as a child."

According to Larry Rubin, a Florida psychologist who recently launched "By The Numbers," a national quarterly newsletter for paint-by-numbers collectors, nostalgia plays a big part in the paintings' appeal. Rubin, who began collecting the pictures four years ago, has covered the walls of his Ft. Lauderdale office "floor to ceiling" with his finds.

"They're simple and colorful," said Rubin, who has 300 paintings in his collection. "People are struck by the nostalgia they evoke."

The problem, the psychologist added, is that the paintings are becoming much harder to find for a few dollars at garage sales and thrift stores. "The easiest place to find them now is on the Internet," said Rubin, who once bid $175 for a choice work in an on-line auction but lost to another collector.

"The paintings aren't high art, but they are fun," said Larry Bird, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and a paint-by-numbers collector. Bird plans to propose that the Smithsonian stage a show next year of vintage paint-by-numbers works and Craft Master materials donated by Max Klein's daughter. Klein died in 1993.

"Right now, the show is in the proposal stage; we'll see what happens," Bird said. "If the idea is approved, we would have to get funding for the exhibit, but I think it is a wonderful idea.

"Paint-by-numbers represented the intersection and smash-up between the pop culture and elite culture of the early 1950s," Bird added. "Critics of the time thought that paint-by- numbers kits somehow devalued aesthetic standards and lowered tastes, but I think that misses the point. They were fun for people to create and they provided the satisfaction of having a finished oil painting."

These days, most people Robbins meets at book signings are less interested in the cultural legacy of paint-by-numbers kits than they are in where he came up with the idea and if the craze made him rich.

"The answer is no, I didn't get rich," said Robbins, who was paid a salary for his efforts.

As for the genesis of the paint-by-numbers idea, Robbins credits Leonardo da Vinci.

"I had heard that da Vinci used to use diagrams and number them when he was instructing his students in painting, and a light bulb went off in my head," Robbins recalled. "I thought, why not do numbered patterns for paintings that people can finish?

"Art teachers called paint-by-numbers sets a fraud, but the sale of art materials increased along with the popularity of the kits," Robbins said. "So some people went from painting patterns to painting free-form. I get a certain satisfaction out of that."

© 1998, The Tribune Company