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Filling in the Blanks

Clarifications From the Original Paint-by-Numbers Artist

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In 1948 Dan Robbins was a young artist back from the war, and Max Klein was an entrepreneur looking to make his fortune in do-it-yourself tchotchkes. Klein's business, the Palmer Paint Company of Detroit, made washable paint sets for kids (varnished designs that could be painted, wiped off, and repainted), and he hired Robbins to draw pictures for the line. But Klein aspired to reach a much broader market. Soon he was prodding Robbins for an idea that would appeal to older people. Under this pressure, Robbins says, he started to think about something like a coloring book for adults. "For about a year I just couldn't come up with anything. Then one day I remembered hearing about Leonardo da Vinci, how he used to give his students and apprentices assignments that were numbered patterns. I thought, well, that's interesting, he gives them numbered assignments, they block in all the particular colors. What if we did the same thing--give them numbered patterns but also give them the paint to do it?" Eureka: paint-by-numbers.

It took them a year to get the product, by then branded Craft Master, to the marketplace. When they did, no one would buy it. Distributors and dealers thought it was too complicated. "We were unsuccessful almost the entire first year," Robbins says. "Then, in the spring of 1951, we took the sets to a toy show in New York. Max had made a deal with the Macy's toy buyer. Max said, 'I'll pay for an ad in the New York Times if in turn you'll give us some demonstrating space in the toy department during the show. We'll bring in our paint sets and sell them to you on a guaranteed-sales basis.' They didn't know that what he meant by guaranteed sales and what they meant by guaranteed sales were two different things. We had a couple of sales reps in New York. Max called them in and gave them each 250 dollars. The sets were $2.50 apiece. And he said to them, 'I want you to give this money to every friend, every relative, anybody you can find. I want them to go in and buy these sets.' After two days we checked back at Macy's, and the sets were selling like crazy. Word got around that Macy's had a hot line. Before the show was over, we were getting calls from dealers and distributors."

The first Craft Master series offered six subjects (including "The Fishermen," "Mt. Matterhorn," and "The Bull-fighter"), all designed by Robbins, all typically safe subjects, all using 22 colors, and all, he now says, "lousy." By the time they got back from the toy show there was demand for more subjects and bigger sets. In short order the company had 25 artists working with a palette of nearly 300 colors and Craft Master was a runaway success. Says Robbins, "The first year we were in business we did about $60,000 in paint-by-numbers; five years later we were doing $20 million." But four years after that, they ran into financial problems. On the verge of bankruptcy, Craft Master was sold and moved to Toledo, where a version of the kits are still made under the Craft House label. Robbins, who says he was given stock options and promises in the boom days, was left with nothing.

Max Klein bowed out forever after the sale, but a year later Robbins got a call to return and he did, staying in the business until the mid-1970s. That part of his life was pretty much out of his mind until a few years ago, when paint-by-numbers started getting hyped as a collectible and Robbins, who lives in Oak Brook, saw a Chicago Tribune story about it that he says contained a few errors. When he called to ask why he hadn't been contacted, he was told the paper thought he was dead. Resurrected and suddenly in demand, he tried to remember what it had all been about. He went through a box that had sat in his basement for 20 years, then trekked to the Smithsonian, which had recently acquired Klein's papers. There, sitting in the archives wearing the requisite white gloves, Robbins says, he rediscovered himself. "Two-thirds of what I looked at in those boxes were things I had done." With each sketch, catalog, and package, his adventures with Max Klein--who labeled his only facility "Plant No. 7" and took his groundbreaking product to New York in a one-way, U-Drive-It "brand-new used Chrysler Imperial" (and picked up a hundred bucks for delivering the car)--came back in all their detail and color.

Robbins returned to Oak Brook and wrote a book, Whatever Happened to Paint-by-Numbers? He'll sign it at a reception from 6 to 9 tonight at Right-On Futon, 1184 N. Milwaukee, where an exhibit of paint-by-numbers art continues through May 17. Maybe he'll tell the story of how embarrassed he was when he ran into his high school watercolor instructor early on and had to confess that he was making a career of paint-by-numbers. Then maybe he'll mention that the Smithsonian is considering a 50th anniversary exhibit next year.

The man who brought the world the paint-by-numbers Last Supper now sees a relationship between Craft Master artists and the impressionists. "We're not blending any colors. We're putting one color next to another very much like Renoir, Degas, all those people. And when we stand back, letting the eye blend, then they come off," he says. If the audience is appreciative, he might pull out a real collector's item--his never-mass-produced red velvet and bare bosoms paint-by-numbers Marilyn.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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