Beyond Kitsch: Creating the Paint by Number Phenomena

. March 14, 2018.
"Gone But Not Forgotten" by Dan Robbins,, 5 of 100, serigraph of commemorative Paint By Number design.
"Gone But Not Forgotten" by Dan Robbins,, 5 of 100, serigraph of commemorative Paint By Number design.

Before Bob Ross and the Joy of Painting ever hit the scene, Paint-By-Number (PBN) was teaching amateur artists the thrill of oil painting. From kittens to Queen Elizabeth, driftwood to Jesus, the subject matter appealed to almost everyone— except the critics. Still, the concept had friends and foes alike asking the question, “What is art?”

Condessa Croninger, art director at Toledo’s 20 North Gallery, explains that was the point— it got the everyday public thinking and discussing art. Croninger’s colleague, artist Peggy Grant, worked with Palmer Paints, Detroit, in the 1950s. Palmer created the Craft Master brand, responsible for inventing the Paint by Number method, and soon relocated the brand to Toledo.

Creating the phenomena 

Among the artists at the company were Dan Robbins and couple Adam and Peggy Grant. Robbins, who led the team, invented the Paint By Number concept, designing the now famous layout, numbered with the corresponding paint color.

Adam Grant, a Polish-born fine-art painter and Auschwitz survivor, found work at Palmer Paints after immigrating to the US. Peggy Grant described the work at Craft Master as “a good job to have; it was a commercial art job, but still, it was one that paid the bills early on. We were lucky to be working in our field and we were proud to be part of educating people about art through PBN.”

Together the team designed hundreds of original and recreated works.

DIY masterpieces

In the 1960s, PBN found itself somewhere between pop art, DIY, and kitsch. Soon it would be even harder to define. Enter The Last Supper— Da Vinci’s 15th-century masterpiece depicting Jesus and the Apostles frozen mid-conversation.

"Paint By Number: The Last Supper." Designed and painted by Adam Grant, 1964.

“Paint By Number: The Last Supper.” Designed and painted by Adam Grant, 1964.

The piece, designed by Adam Grant in 1964, hit a nerve with public taste and quickly became an overnight phenomena selling upwards of 100,000 copies a year. Whether purchased for satire, worship or its cool factor, history was made and The Last Supper  PBN continues to sell well.

Toledo to D.C.

Now, Peggy is thrilled to have the original artist’s proof of the famous work accepted into the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The piece remains in the Grant Collection, currently exhibited at 20 North Gallery through March 31. In addition to being accepted into the Smithsonian, many of Adam Grant’s original works can be found in the collections of museums and colleges.

Meet Dan Robbins during a free public reception on Saturday, March 24 from 4-7pm, featuring complimentary hors d’ oeuvres buffet and cash bar by Venue. The panel discussion will be from 4:30-5:15pm. Due to limited space, attendees are asked to respond prior to the event, by calling 419-241-2400 or email info@20northgallery.com

On view through March 31.
18 N. St. Clair St. Toledo.
419-262-3212 | 20northgallery.com