Sunday, 9 October 2011

Elephant No. 7: Paint-by-Number

I remember doing one or two paint-by-number kits when I was a kid. I think one was of a dog, and one might have been a landscape with a farmhouse and horse. I don't think I finished either of them, but I did like the little kits. They came with cardboard covered in a sort of canvas surface, and bright turquoise outlines with numbers to tell you which colour went where.

Best of all were the tiny pots of paint, all linked together. Back then, the pots contained oil paint, which you had to stir, and which usually dried out before you could finish your masterpiece. Given that they were oil paints and had a pretty strong smell, most kids would probably have been high by the time they'd painted a tree branch.

Painting by number has come a long way since then. There are thousands of designs, and there have been a number of exhibitions devoted to this slightly dubious form of art. Even the phrase "paint-by-number" has found its way into common parlance, describing everything from the actual kits to the concept of doing something by rote.

The original paint-by-number kits were developed and produced in 1950 by Max S. Klein and Dan Robbins. Klein was an engineer and owner of Detroit, Michigan's Palmer Paint Company, and Robbins was a commercial artist. One source I read jokes that Robbins is the most reproduced artist in the world, because he designed so many of the designs for the kits.

In 1951, Palmer Paint introduced the Craft Master brand of kits, with boxtop mottoes such as, "A beautiful oil painting the first time you try" and "Every man a Rembrandt." My mother brought me this kit that someone had in their basement. The motto on the back of this one is "The Art of Relaxation". Definitely not my experience today.

Palmer Paint sold over 12 million kits fairly quickly, prompting other companies to produce similar items. The Palmer Paint Company's archives are now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, which also produced a comprehensive exhibition on paint-by-number.

In 2008, a private collector in Massachusetts assembled over 6,000 works of paint-by-number, dating back to the 1950s. The resulting collection was used to create the Paint By Number Museum: the world's largest online archive of its kind.

The kit I bought for today's elephant is similar to the ones I had as a kid: cardboard covered in a canvas-like surface, outlines with numbers (bluish-black rather than turquoise), tiny pots of paint, and a brush. The only real difference is that the paints are now acrylic. I guess I don't get to relive the entire experience of stinky paint, watering eyes and dried-out brush—but we can't have everything.

I couldn't find a paint-by-number kit in the art store that had just an elephant, so I bought this one. I figured I'd paint just the elephant and ignore or overpaint all the other animals, since the whole idea of the blog is an elephant a day, not a herd of African animals a day.

I'd forgotten how much I don't like painting by numbers. It literally took hours, even though I only did the elephant. I also didn't like having to mix my own colours—the old kits came with every last colour you needed. Very few of the colours on my elephant are directly from the little pots of paint. Most of them were blends, which meant that, even within one area, the colour varied wildly.

There was also a problem with paint consistency. If I put the paint on thick, it was difficult to manoeuvre into the skinnier spaces. If it was too wet, it wasn't opaque enough, and spread into areas in which it didn't belong. And always, the lines and numbers showed through, unless the paint was basically trowelled on. 

I'm probably just not patient enough to do something like this. In the interests of making it look fairly realistic, the numbered areas are quite detailed, making it hard to fill in anything quickly. I kept thinking that I could have painted a similar-looking elephant from scratch in half the time. Then again, it probably wouldn't have looked as much like a real elephant.

Next time I try painting by number, I think I'll use magic markers.

Elephant Fact of the Day
There is a whole industry devoted to the paintings of elephants. Some have tried to claim that elephants can paint things such as flowers, and even other elephants. While elephants can indeed paint such things when carefully directed by their handlers, most elephant art is, to put it mildly, highly abstract.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society 


  1. I don't think I've ever in my life completed a paint by number set! I always lost patience. Kudos to you for finishing it!

  2. Thanks, Jim! I only managed to finish the elephant (and that's as far as I've ever gotten on any paint-by-number thing), but I wanted to shoot myself by the end of it!

  3. Thank you again for all the knowledge u distribute,Good post. I was very interested in the article, it's quite inspiring I should admit. I like visiting you site since I always come across interesting articles like this one.Great Job, I greatly appreciate that.Do Keep sharing! Regards, Paint by numbers