Brush up on the basics of this collecting craze

"Brush up on the basics of this collecting craze"

by Larry Rubin

From Warman's Today's Collector, December 1999
Oil paints, a paintbrush and a canvas full of numbers - this was all it took in the 1950s to embark on an artistic journey, and today, collectors are trying to retrace these steps.

Under guidance of Max Klein, the Palmer Paint Company unveiled its new paint-by-number concept, Craft Master, at the 1951 American International Toy Show in New York.

It was the brainchild of Palmer package designer Dan Robbins. Robbins was inspired by childhood memories of both coloring and painting, as well as the story of how Michelangelo assigned prenumbered sections of his famous ceiling to his students to paint.

Klein initially dismissed the idea, aware of failed earlier versions of the craft. He reconsidered, and the rest is history.

Over the next several years, these odd, amateurish but identifiable renditions of everything from wide-eyed kittens to Leonardo DaVinci's The Last Supper became staples in American households. The sets were a major contender in the American marketplace and an icon of postwar American popular culture.

Paint-by-number was so influential that it spurred heated debate in established art circles. It was argued that the medium did not deserve to use the term "art" and was nothing more than "assembly-line French Impressionism." However, there was something uniquely postwar 1950s American that was typified by this stay-within-the-lines approach to art.

Nevertheless, with a paint brush in hand, vials of premixed paints and a numbered canvas, everyone could, as Craft Master promised, "be a Rembrandt."

Today, paint-by-numbers are slowly finding their way into antique shops and toy and collectible shows. Most are also widely available in thrift shops, flea markets and garage sales for anywhere from 25 cents to $10.

Secondary market prices depend on a number of factors, including size, quality of artistry, presence of a vintage wooden frame with or without glass, age of the painting, signature and theme.

Throughout the 1950s, the Craft Master line of paint-bynumber products dramatically expanded. Images abounded, and the familiar and inspiring landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes were joined by a veritable menagerie of animals, including dogs, cats, horses, birds and deer. Beautifully articulated canvases promised a dazzling array of pictures just waiting to be brought to life by armies of would-be artists.

Craft Master kits usually contained one numbered 18-by-24 inch canvas and 45 colors for the Masterpiece Series, originally selling for $5, or a three-piece grouping of flowers, ballerinas or childhood nursery rhyme figures, which sold for $2.50. All could be completed with a solid wood frame, sold in kits priced from $2.95 to $4.95.

Today, the hard-to-find framed arrangements command from $50 to $100, while the original, unused kits sell for between $20 and $40.

The Craft Master Masterpiece Series, which are faithful depictions of Gainsborough's Blue Boy, Rembrandt's Roman Soldier and others, sell for between $40 and $75, depending on quality.

Super Master Craft kits, with a canvas that measured a whopping 24-by-36 inches, were also available and depicted April in Paris or Conflict at Sea. These rare kits can bring from $75 to over $100 on the secondary market.

If one preferred an item that did not have to be hung on the wall, Venetian canals, the Pennsylvania Dutch or Latin American ladies could be brushed onto the black enamel Toleware wastebaskets, trays and magazine holders. These pieces sell for an average of $25, and the original prices were $3 to $4.

All of these products, in addition to the hundreds of paint-bynumber images, were catapulted into the public eye by full-color spreads in Life magazine, Macy's window displays and contests to paint the best images of Jimmy Durante. As the demand for quality increased, Craft Master hired artist Adam Grant to design nudes and Christian scenes. Today, nudes are a favorite of collectors and can command dramatic prices of $100 to $150 in paint-by-number circles.

The American tradition of creativity and ingenuity was well represented by the craze of paint-by-number, but the hobby soon engaged another great American tradition - competition.

The Craftint Corp., makers of art supplies, developed a line of paint-by-numbers on rigid illustration board, virtually rolling canvas into oblivion. The company also created a very lucrative paint-bynumber line for themselves.

From the mid 1950s through the mid 1960s, Craftint went toe-to-toe with Craft Master. Their "100," "175" and "200" series provided cutesy 8-by-10 and 9-by-12-inch images of puppies, kittens and horses. Their "600," "700" and "Big 3" series captured exquisite Biblical, Oriental, European and tropical scenes.

Craftint was also first to use popular images from literature and film to attract consumers. This included characters from Pinocchio, The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. Today, these are highly coveted due to their crossover appeal, and prices range from $25 to $75.

The 1960s witnessed an even greater expansion of paint-by-number kits, and Craft Master and Craftint were joined by several of the large toymakers including Transogram, Hasbro, and Pressman.

These companies, already a mainstay in American pop culture, joined the bandwagon by releasing kits featuring popular TV and movie images. Dr. Dolittle, Wyatt Earp, Zorro, Frankenstein, Bozo and Dick Tracy were joined by Bambi, Lady and the Tramp and Mickey Mouse and friends.

While the already painted versions of these kits are collectible, it is the unused kits in factory plastic that routinely sell for more than $100.

The more collecting categories a paint-by-number crosses into, the higher the value. For example, a Frankenstein kit recently sold for over $500 because it was one of the original MGM monsters and an unused paint-bynumber.

During the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Craft Master continued in its tried- and-true tradition of adding more images to its paint-by-number line, as well as diversifying its craft accessories including Mosette sets (crushed gravel), paint-on black velvet sets, sculpted paintable wall plaques and model kits.

These spinoffs have yet to command respect or value in the collectibles market.

In the mid 1970s, Craft Master, along with Parker Brothers, Play Doh and Lionel Trains, was purchased by General Mills, who subsumed the paint-by-number giant under its Fundimensions umbrella.

Within several years, the Craft Master line declined and was purchased by International Assemblix, later renamed Craft House. With the Craft Master trademark and name in hand, Craft House continues to be the major producer of paint-by-numbers.

When examining the paint-by-number market, one can not ignore the effect the Internet has had. For many, online auctions and retail web sites provide an introduction to vintage paint-by-number collecting.

While people still paint by numbers, the hobby is rooted in the buying and selling of vintage paint-by-number pictures, kits and accessories. A small legion of dedicated collectors have collections that number in the hundreds.

Collectors are also finding novel ways of expressing their paint-by-number enthusiasm.

This includes college exhibits to teach art and pop culture, stage productions of the paint-by-number The Last Supper and window displays of paint-by-numbers to sell futons. Energies are even being directed at developing a 50th anniversary paint-by-number retrospective at the Smithsonian.

In spite of its detractors and critics, paint-by-number has survived for 50 years. And in the increasingly complex world of collecting and collectibles, there appears to be not only strength but security in numbers.