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Sometime between the invention of the coloring book and the touchscreen came paint-by-numbers. The man who helped invent that system, Dan Robbins, died this week at age 93. NPR's Elizabeth Blair takes a moment to remember his legacy.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: It looks like paint-by-numbers might be the worst thing you could say about a painting, and yet the inspiration came from a technique used by master artist Leonardo da Vinci to help his assistants. Here's what happened.
After World War II, Dan Robbins was working for the Palmer Paint Company in Detroit. The owner, Max Klein, wanted a product that would appeal to the adult hobby market. Robbins started by picking a subject.
LARRY ROBBINS: Whether it was a seascape, a landscape, whatever, and paint the picture first.
BLAIR: Larry Robbins, Dan's son, says then, his dad would lay a clear, plastic sheet over the painting and assign numbers to the colors he used.
ROBBINS: Well, beginner kits might only have 20 colors. Or a more advanced kit might have 30 to 40 colors.
BLAIR: Add a couple of paint brushes and a canvas, encouraging words like every man a Rembrandt on the box, and voila, painting-by-numbers became a hit, with some 20 million kits sold in 1955. William Lawrence Bird curated an exhibition exploring the craze for the Smithsonian Museum of American History. He says Dan Robbins would read the mail to find out what people wanted to paint.
WILLIAM LAWRENCE BIRD: You know, pets, kittens, puppy dogs, horses. And some people, when they would finish the painting, they would sign it.
BLAIR: Critics were incensed. They saw it as a time wasting, shallow activity. But Larry Robbins says his dad didn't seem bothered.
ROBBINS: I don't think dad ever really got too caught up in the back and forth of whether paint-by-members was considered art or not. It gave an individual who would never have the opportunity to paint a beautiful picture the chance to experience art.
BLAIR: Dan Robbins continued making his own art and working freelance for commercial clients. Curator Bird says one of those jobs was designing toys for McDonald's Happy Meals. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF NICK BOX'S "SONO")