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How to Bring Back Paint-by-Number Art

While running an errand at Michael’s Arts and Crafts, something caught my eye. Tucked away in the back corner of an aisle was a grouping of pegs that held a wild array of dolphins and puppies and floral-tinged pastoral scenes. Covered bridges, soaring eagles, and desert vistas with herds of horses vied for space alongside smiling fat clowns and wolves pacing through the woods. Oh yes, the paint-by-number aisle!

Paint-by-numbers bring up such strange childhood memories. They weren’t ever really fun to do but their charm is undeniable. In fact, they were often quite frustrating, as there was always a few missed color guides and I would always use up at least one of the paint pots before all of its respective areas were filled in. Not to mention that the pictures were never really to my liking. The blocky style is unmistakable; even the most intricately detailed pattern has the flat look that can only come from a seven-color pallet (although some kits proudly proclaimed that the instructions included a step-by-step walk-through for “blending colors realistically”). The subjects are always safe and idyllic; “suitable for framing,” the packaging says. But would you? Really?

Even with all that, a fit of somewhat ironic nostalgia took over and I bought one. A foil dolphin. I’ve not done any paint-by-numbering since I was 10 years old or so, and I’d certainly never done one on foil, but I was in a capricious mood and heck, it was only four bucks. I haven’t actually painted it yet; I’m waiting for the perfect rainy afternoon when I’m bored with the book I’m reading and there’s nothing that immediately interests me in the GreenCine cue. It’s my quiet day’s entertainment ace-in-the-hole.

I wonder if there will ever be an indie, low-brow paint-by-number resurgence. It could easily fall on the heels of knitting and embroidery as the new retro craft to be mastered.

With plenty of create your own canvas services available, you don’t have to be constrained to painting kittens in the yarn basket or doves roosting in the wisteria. DIYart makes a paint-by-pixel pattern that translates your photos into a square-by-square numbered grid guide. If you want a truer paint-by-number, there is conversion software that will create the pattern and provide color guides so that you are sure to get the right colors of paint. If you have the time and inclination to go truly D.I.Y., you can even use your own software to create your own. If using real paint and brushes ain’t your thang, you can even do it online.

Along those same lines, what other childhood art projects could be modernized, ironicized, and hipsterized and re-introduced to the crafty masses? When can I expect to see flocks of hand turkeys adorning the backs of stop signs, all stickerbomb style? Will somebody please reclaim tie-dyeing? Could hand-tooled leathercraft become the new “paint your plate” activity for bridal showers and family outings? Will there ever be a Goth macabre macrame resurgence? Or how about a latch hook rug revival? I think it’d really tie the room together.

Lorien Gruchalla


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  1. I gave up on paint-by-numbers as a child myself. I just didn’t have the patience, or a steady enough hand.

    However, for more than forty years, above the piano in my family’s house, has hung my mother’s paint-by-numbers rendition of Da Vinci’s “The Lord’s Supper.” It is a bit blocky, certainly, and clearly paint-by-numbers, but it was executed immaculately and lovingly, and it is amazingly complex, right down to the folds in the tablecloth and the robes of the disciples. She also did it entirely in oils. It saddens me now to think how much of her creative talent, discipline, and persistence was wasted…at least it gave me an early introduction to Renaissance art.

  2. See also the paint-by-numbers wall mural on the patio wall at Linda’s Tavern on Capitol Hill.

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