But it was Robbins’s move to Palmer Show Card Paint Company, in 1949, that led to his first big break. The company’s founder, Max Klein, had given Robbins a mission: sell more paint. His solution was paint by numbers. The activity tapped into the post-war American public’s newfound leisure time. With the war behind them and a fast-growing economy bolstering their quality of life, Americans discovered both time and energy to devote to hobbies.
Robbins’s concept was straightforward: a kit that would allow anyone, even those who’d never taken an art class, to create a detailed painting. Using his knowledge of how to build a readable composition by layering and arranging colors, he devised a technique to simplify the process. To create each kit, he first painted an original artwork. Next, he placed a plastic sheet over it, upon which he outlined its forms and shapes, assigning a number and corresponding color to each of them. In this way, paint by numbers was born.
The first paint-by-numbers kit that Robbins proposed to Klein riffed on the era’s
movement, with a piece called Abstract No. One
. But abstraction turned out to be less marketable than landscape, still life, and figuration, and the paint company quickly veered in a more traditional direction. Popular kits bore titles like Fishermen
, Mt. Matterhorn
, and The Bullfighter
. Some were more complex than others, allowing more ambitious hobbyists room for growth; kits for beginners may have had 20 colors, for instance, while sets for more advanced practitioners offered 30 to 40.