Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Honoring the artist behind a cultural art phenomenon April 8, 2019

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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DAN ROBBINS DIED, my husband texted.

Who’s that? I replied.


My Great Grandma Anna painted this paint-by-numbers, one of a pair. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Robbins, it turns out, invented paint-by-numbers pictures. And Randy knows how much I love vintage paint-by-numbers art. Enough that I own several pieces. I am a bit of an art collector, securing my art primarily at garage sales and thrift shops. It’s the only way I can afford artwork.

Back to Robbins. He died a week ago at the age of 93. According to info I sourced online, he worked as a package designer for Detroit-based Palmer Paint Products when he came up with the paint-by-numbers idea. Leonardo da Vinci inspired him. That master Italian painter apparently used numbered backgrounds to teach his students.


I purchased this stunning 24-inch x 18-inch paint-by-numbers painting several years ago at a Wisconsin second-hand/collectible/antique shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


If it worked for da Vinci’s proteges, why not for the masses? I expect that was Robbins’ thinking when he crafted his first landscape paint-by-numbers art, soon expanding to subjects like horses, puppies and kitties.


I painted this paint-by-numbers ballerina some 50 years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


This painting option evolved into a bit of a cultural phenomenon beginning in the 1950s. I was part of that, painting a pair of ballerinas from a paint-by-numbers kit gifted to me one Christmas in the 1960s. I still have those paintings, which I need to pull out now in honor of Robbins. I rotate my art to keep my home art-gallery interesting. And because I have such a wide collection of mostly original art. I have more paint-by-numbers than shown in this post.


The other ballerina in the pair I painted as a child. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


I realize not everyone appreciates paint-by-numbers. But I do. There’s something down-to-earth kitschy and appealing to me about an art form that allows anyone to paint art. Talented or not. Just brush inside the lines with the appropriate numbered colors and you’ve got art.

TELL ME: What’s your opinion of paint-by-numbers art? Have you crafted art this way and/or do you own any paint-by-numbers artwork?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


32 Responses to “Honoring the artist behind a cultural art phenomenon”

  1. washekoda Says:

    I have not seen those kits for quite some time. My mother & grandma did some yrs ago & they where pretty 🙂 I myself can paint a house but was never good a coloring books or even by number. Thanks for sharing this I had forgotten about that kind of art 😉

  2. Beth Ann Says:

    We were just having a discussion about paint by numbers two weeks ago when my brother in law said that was what he was going to pick up as hobby . He had bought one and was planning to work on it in the fall when things got a little less busy. Chris and I were amused –thinking it was an odd choice of hobby but Bryan remininsced about not being able to finish one as a child . He is a few years older than us and he still remembers that. I have seen adult paint by number kits are becoming a “thing” so I guess I am out of the loop on that. Just like adult coloring books it is making a come back. Whatever gets people creating is okay by me. 🙂

    • A magazine I occasionally read features a paint-by-numbers kit each month on the last page of the issue. So, yes, apparently this art from is making a comeback. I think it’s great. And kudos to Bryan for returning to this art. I expect he will finish his painting this time.

  3. Littlesundog Says:

    I don’t remember doing any paint-by-numbers artwork myself, but I am pretty sure my sister Lisa tried it. Mom was really good at finding crafts for us kids to work on during the evenings or in the summer months. And oddly, just recently, we discovered a series of three landscape paint-by-number works that had been framed and hung in Forrest’s mother’s home. They were signed, but not by anyone we know, so I imagine they’ll go to Goodwill. I hope they find a good home.

  4. Love your artwork 🙂 I had a watercolor set growing up for a bit then I was turned on to colored pencils and markers with pre-printed art to color. My main love of art is photography, especially landscapes. I learned something new today about the guy behind the paint by numbers – thanks. Happy Day – Enjoy!

  5. Almost Iowa Says:

    My father painted a religious image by numbers. He was very proud of it. It was one of his treasures. Art is supposed to bring us beauty and joy. It did.

    As for great art, that was good enough for me.

  6. Missy's Crafty Mess Says:

    I remember painting these as a child. I wish you could find those in craft stores. My daughter would love them

  7. I did a couple paint-by-number paintings as a child (one was horses and the other a fall scene), but none of them were saved to my knowledge. As a person who has absolutely NO free-hand art talent, it was pretty darn cool to see my painting actually look like something when it was finished. This post brought that memory back, and I can even remember how the paint smelled when I was working on it. What a nice piece of nostalgia, and I’m so happy you collect them.

  8. Bella Says:

    Interesting fact about the artist behind the vintage painting by number craze. I think the adult/children coloring craze has replaced paint by numbers. Recently in AZ I was on a house tour and a very nice one I might add. The owner a well known artist in the region devoted a whole wall to her vintage framed paint by number she had done as a child.

  9. valeriebollinger Says:

    It is fun to know you have a collection of paint-by-number paintings.
    I remember trying one or two paintings when I was a child, but I haven’t thought about it for years.

  10. Marilyn Donnell Says:

    At some point my eldest son acquired the two paint-by-numbers I did as a kid (a Christmas present). It is a thrill to think he enjoyed them and now refuses all offers to relieve him of those old paintings. Now there’s a UFO in my craft cupboard you have just motivated me to bring out again and finish! This one is of a field flowers.

  11. I Loved paint-by-number and did many as a child, unfortunately mom never saved any of them I remember especially being drawn to horses. I also love paint-by-numbers on black velvet. That was striking. I like the girls you painted, it’s neat that you still have them.

  12. Philip Holum Says:

    I remember painting a 2-piece set of a native American man and woman in dress regalia. I wish I could find them. Perhaps they were lost in a move. One thing I thought it taught me was the patience needed to finish anything, and it took away the fear of the use of color. The colors weren’t always what you would imagine if doing it on your own without the guides. I’m glad that they are still being sold.

  13. norma Says:

    Audrey, thanks for the memories. I became interested In trying my hand at painting when my children were young. I found that I couldn’t paint a straight line even with a ruler. Then I found the paint by number pictures, and all of a sudden, I was a great artist. I loved it!!!

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