Excerpted from “Life on the Carousel”

My father raised the camera, focused carefully and snapped the picture. My grandfather, the subject of the photo, smiles in obvious delight at his Christmas gift. It is a King Size paint-by-number oil set from Craftint.

My grandfather turned the box around so I could see. The two panels shown on the front were shown on the back as well though one of them, the one of The Last Supper, was pictured in stunning color. I followed along as he read aloud.

The Ultimate In Paint-By-Number Sets”

“Each set contains, two huge 18 x 24 genuine artist’s panels, 30 numbered jars of oil paint, 3 deluxe artist’s brushes, a large bottle of brush cleaner, and complete directions.”

“It’s exciting and challenging for you to paint the two beautiful panels in each King Size Set. Remember BOTH of the panels paint-up in FULL COLOR! One is shown in black-and-white merely to withhold the thrill of achieving the actual FULL COLOR results!”

“Wow,” I said. “Let’s do it!”

My grandfather laughed. “No Bobby. I think I’ll work on these myself. This project is going to take some very careful work. You see, this is what you call real art.” And with that he raised the age-old question. What is art?

What is art?

My mother and father bought the gift knowing he would love it. He had retired from the bottle factory and needed something to keep himself busy. And, where some would suffer from the tedium of filling one paint number at a time for hours on end, my grandfather just finished forty years on the line putting bottles in boxes one by one, hour after hour, day after day. Tedium was not a problem. Furthermore he had an artistic bent—or at least a creative one. He loved to build things. He played nearly a dozen instruments including the musical saw. He sang, whistled, whittled and carved. And he’d been hinting about a paint-by-number set.

For years he’d seen full-page Life magazine advertisements promising that anyone could be a Rembrandt. Of course it wasn’t quite true. What they meant was, anyone could put paint on a panel – or as Craftint called it a “HUGE 18 X 24 genuine artist’s panel” – and after a few days or maybe weeks they could have a painting that reminded one of Rembrandt. But, of course, Rembrandt never painted the way these paint-by-number painters did. I wonder though … what if he had? What if Rembrandt or Leonardo or Michelangelo or Picasso had decided to create this way? I’m guessing these guys could have still pulled off some real art?

Craftint did not start the odd revolution. In fact, Michelangelo may be guilty of inspiring the whole thing by assigning pre-numbered pieces of his famous chapel ceiling to his students. But Palmer Paints, the first of many paint-by-number companies, launched Craft Master in 1951. In the first two years they sold nearly five million kits created by a staff of twenty-five full time artist/designers. Wide-eyed kittens, Scotty puppies, New England seascapes, Swiss Alps, tropical lagoons, Alaskan glaciers, oriental shrines, Venetian canals, snowy egrets and, yes, even nudes — all could be painted by anyone able to hold a brush and see.

Stores were forced to set up entire paint-by-number departments to handle the rush of sales. In what became a huge publicity ploy, red-faced judges at The San Francisco Art Show awarded third prize to a Craft Master painting. Even President Eisenhower was a paint-by-number enthusiast giving kits to his entire White House staff for Christmas. Television stars “Ozzie and Harriet” were seen on their show dipping a brush into tiny vials of premixed color and painting away at the kitchen table.

Paint-by-numbers were an American craze. Nearly every home had one hanging somewhere. Art critics were, of course, beside themselves — nearly apoplectic — but they held little sway over America. Certainly no one in my town paid them any attention. We lived in a fairly artless, culturally deprived part of the Appalachians. Did we think paint-by-numbers were tacky? Hey, we’d just spent four months gluing together a ten thousand-piece puzzle of the Taj Mahal. We hung it over the fireplace.We were probably the wrong people to ask that question.

“Okay,” the critics said, “but all this staying in the lines is defeating the artistic process and destroying the creative spirit.”

Well, I wasn’t so sure that was true. After all, staying in the lines was pretty much what we did in the 1950s. And who was to say we couldn’t get a little crazy once in a while–maybe use vial number 9 to paint all the 1s and 4s. I’m not saying I ever got so wild, but hey — I could have.

My son Nate is a real painter — an artist and teacher. We often find ourselves grappling about the art world. Judy and I recently returned from a trip to Washington where we visited The National Gallery of Art. It was there, one floor down from a gorgeous exhibit of small French landscapes that we gazed upon a shower stall hanging on the wall. It was an old ceramic shower stall just hanging there — about three feet off the ground, placed at a twenty degree angle. I later told Nate, “I’m not sure how many of my tax dollars were used to create this grand masterpiece but whatever I paid was too much.”

“You have to understand, Dad,” he said, “There are two camps. There are the fine art people and then there are the conceptual artists. Most of the time, they don’t have much in common.” He went on to explain that fine art is often quite beautiful … or if not beautiful at least displaying the effort of a skillful artist. Fine art is the kind most of us like to hang in the dining room. On the other hand, conceptual art is not concerned with skill. Conceptual art is all about the idea as in, “Hey, I have an idea. I think I’ll write a grant to hang that old shower stall on a wall. I’ll put it about three feet above the ground at, let’s say, a twenty-degree angle. I was thinking ‘bout the National Gallery.”

I know that art appreciation is a matter of personal taste. I’ve seen television ads and heard the announcer screaming, “The Starving Artist Sale at The Holiday Inn! Three days only! Original paintings! All for under $14!” A thirty-second ad is long enough to know why these artists are starving and why some should probably die. But, I gotta say … forced to decide between these works and an askew shower stall hanging in my living room, I’m going with the crappy paintings every time.

Nate earned his MFA. He spent two years creating paintings using old 50s snapshots as source material. I think he did a great job combining skill and concept. In his own words: “My paintings navigate and comment on the historical space of 1950s America as seen in discarded snapshots and slides. Paint and brush become the tools for possessing a photograph and the memories of people and places. The camera captures a moment of frozen time, but by slowly remaking the photographic image into a painting the viewer is compelled to reconsider what is depicted and to search for its inherent meaning.”

What a great concept. And the viewer is indeed compelled — which, I think, is a characteristic of real art. Real art compels one to ponder, consider, contemplate, feel, act, change and on and on.

So here’s what I’m thinking. Conceptual art is about the idea. That being so, can you think of a more exciting idea than the one Dan Robbins thought? In 1950, Dan was a twenty-six year old artist working as a package designer at Palmer Paints. He had an idea. I can’t say he thought of it as conceptual art. It was probably just a way to make money — but what an idea!

He decided to make paintings and then deconstruct them into areas of pure unblended color, each color represented by a number. Then he’d mail the numbered drawings to millions of people around the world. Many of these people would never have held a paintbrush in their lives but that was the idea. Dan would convince them that if they followed his simple instructions they could create a work of art. If they believed him, it would result in millions of paintings. What would happen in the art world … no … what would happen in the world if he could pull this off? Well he did pull it off. And what difference did it make? I can only speak for one man.

During January and February of 1964, nearly everyday after school, I stopped by my grandparent’s to see my grandfather’s progress. Each day I got more excited. And so did he. As I walked in the front door I could see him seated at the dining room table covered with newspapers. He peered through the bottom of his bifocals carefully filling in the spaces.

“I finished all the 26s this afternoon,” he said proudly. “Now I’m thinking it’s time to stop before I go blind. Look it here.” Then he held up the panel so I could see and each day I was more amazed. If I stood far enough away, all the pure colors blended beautifully. “Yes sirree Bobby,” he said. “This is gonna be some real art.”

What did Dan Robbin’s dream mean to my grandfather? I can honestly say that I never saw him happier.

So I wonder … was it real art?

FREE GIFT! Bob Stromberg inherits a treasure of family slides and the memoir begins. In this sunny reflection, at times funny and poignant, an American past shines brightly through the lens of time. To receive your FREE eBook click here:

artBob Stromberg is a very funny man. From his home in St Paul, Minnesota, he travels all over the world performing his very unique and perfect blend of story, standup and shtick.He’s is the co-author and one of the original stars of the mega hit theatrical comedy, Triple Espresso, which has been seen by over two million people from San Diego to the West End of London. The Chicago Sun Times called Bob “…a mesmerizing physical comedian”. The London Times called him “…a genuinely funny man.” And so he is. Learn more @

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