A brush with paint by the numbers

"That's just paint-by-the-numbers stuff" is a put-down. The phrase stands for mindlessness. Conformity. The opposite of the creative or original. Something common, derivative, or mass-produced.

The term comes from paint-by-numbers kits that sold in the millions in the 1950s and early '60s, marketed with the phrase "Every man's a Rembrandt." Folks from every walk of life, from kids to celebrities, gave it a try. Some proudly framed their "works" and put them on the wall. Today these are gaining value as memorabilia - if not exactly as art.

An exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington is making people rethink what that '50s fad really meant.

Was it really all that awful?

Maybe. But it had some redeeming values too.

"Paint by numbers functioned as a compromise between genuine creativity and the security of following instructions," points out an essay on the museum's website. "Real art began the moment the hobbyist ignored outlines to blend colors, added or dropped a detail, or elaborated on a theme. By doing something that was not art, one could learn what art was."

The website also displays notes from people who recall doing paint-by-numbers. Several have become professional artists. Said one: "The great thing about paint-by-number was that it gave me a chance to 'feel' paint, plan how to work with wet paint.... [It] taught contours, modeling, and how our eyes blend colors to form shapes and shadows.... Not bad for a paint-by-numbers start!"

'Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s' is at the National Museum until Dec. 31. For more about it, go to www.americanhistory.si.edu/paint. Write to Arts & Leisure at entertainment@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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