When Amanda and Brian Farnum started Wehgo, their paint-by-numbers business, out of their Midlothian, Va., home four years ago, they never imagined the situation they faced this spring. With most of the country sequestered at home thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, demand for Wehgo’s little painting kits reached a historic high for the brand. Sales were so robust that the husband-and-wife team had to suspend wholesale operation to keep up with retail orders. “It’s like paint by numbers suddenly became the ‘it’ item of covid,” Amanda Farnum says.
Much like the adult-coloring-book craze a few years ago, this retro pastime is resonating with those looking for a lo-fi, low-stakes way to decompress. “When people are completely oversaturated with news that feels anxiety-producing, they seek out a calming, creative outlet, but starting with a blank canvas can feel overwhelming,” says Rachel Austen of Portland, Ore.-based Elle Crée (French for “she creates”). Austen says her paint-by-numbers sales have quadrupled since the pandemic started.
Catherine Guadagnolo of D.C.’s Cate Paper Co. has experienced a similar spike in paint-by-numbers sales but isn’t surprised. “Even if you’ve kept your job and you’re relatively secure, you can still feel mentally discombobulated from all the uncertainty,” she says. “This is a screen-free, news-free activity that can take your mind off current events, and in the end, you have a lovely little painting.”
It’s hardly the only quarantine hobby to get big. Since shutdowns began in March, people have rediscovered the joy and sense of accomplishment that comes from pleasant diversions such as sewing, knitting, baking and painting, to name a few. “These activities can take your mind off stressors, which tracks with what’s going on in the world between covid and all the political and social justice upheaval,” says Margaret Carlock Russo, president of the American Art Therapy Association. “Engaging in a creative process, even when it’s just following directions, can help manage anxiety,” she says.
Like coloring, anyone can do a paint-by-numbers piece; you don’t have to master color theory or understand composition to fill in the lines, which makes it particularly kid-friendly. But it’s the grown-ups who have really taken to the activity in this particular national moment: A quick scroll through Instagram shows a lot of adults posing, paintbrush in hand, for proud selfies with their finished masterpieces. Even actresses Sharon Stone and Dakota Fanning have gotten in on the act during the pandemic.
For some, the kits offer a way to connect in our collective isolation. “I’ve had many customers tell me they are doing virtual paint nights over Zoom while drinking wine and socializing with their friends,” Austen says.
Unlike the paint-by-numbers kits of yore, the newer versions offer less elaborate outlines, which translates to less time and, thankfully, for the middle-aged, less eyestrain. “We wanted to simplify the designs so you can paint them in one sitting,” says Farnum, who believes the promise of a faster finished product is an irresistible hook for most consumers. “It’s paint by numbers for the impatient,” she says. A single painting from Wehgo or Cate Paper can take as little as one to two hours to finish, and Elle Crée’s designs are estimated to take three to five hours. By contrast, some traditional kits have as many as 30 colors and can take weeks to complete.
Restricting the palette and reducing the canvas size also makes for a less intimidating experience. Elle Crée reduced its painting size to 8 by 10 inches and limited the palette to just eight colors; Austen pre-prints the background for each image, so there’s less to paint, too. “We found that if you start with a large canvas with 20-plus colors, you may give up before you finish,” she says.
Even the subject matter has gotten a refresh. Until recently, the kits mostly appealed to a sense of nostalgia or kitsch or a very limited grasp of art history — think recreations of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” or Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” And although you can still find images of country roads with covered bridges and charming horse portraiture, most of the newer brands have a more modern sensibility. Farnum, Guadagnolo and Austen all have backgrounds in art and graphic design and pay attention to current color and decor trends. Nowadays, you’ll find far more abstract and illustration-inspired designs, including minimalist still lifes of succulents and other houseplants geared toward millennial tastes. And many companies now offer a custom design feature where you send them a photo and they turn it into a paint-by-numbers canvas.
A few brands are even using the medium to promote empowerment and diversity: Elle Crée offers a variety of skin-tone options for several of its designs, including Odette from “Swan Lake.” “We are trying to do what we can to respond to the current moment and rise to the challenge of representing people who haven’t historically seen themselves in traditional product lines,” Austen says. Two of the company’s latest kits feature Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai.
Paint-by-numbers kits have been around since the early 1950s. When the Detroit-based Palmer Paint Company was looking for a way to sell more paint, product designer Dan Robbins came up with an idea for kits that included a canvas with numbered sections that correspond to paint colors, a trick da Vinci used to instruct his apprentices. “They weren’t the only ones making paint by numbers, but Palmer and Robbins were the ones responsible for making it the marketing phenomenon that it became,” says William L. Bird, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution who oversaw the National Museum of American History’s 2001 exhibition on the subject and authored the accompanying book.
At the height of their mid-century popularity, it was estimated that more people in the United States had paint-by-numbers works on their walls than original art. In a short time, the perception of the kits went from that of democratizing art — the slogan on the box was “every man a Rembrandt” — to “by the numbers” being a burn for something that’s formulaic and lacks imagination. Cultural critics slammed it as a middlebrow hobby that dumbed down the process of making art.
Despite the severe criticism, Bird believes the kits were actually good for art. “They gave people access to paints, brushes, a canvas, canvas board — [people] who would have never had access to those things,” he says. “Each kit came with instructions telling you how to hold a brush, how much pressure to apply, how to keep the oils from drying out.” For many, the numbered canvases served as an introduction, or in some cases, a reintroduction, to the process of painting, and that’s as true today as it was in the 1950s.
“One of my customers told me that her mom hadn’t picked up a paintbrush in 30 years, and she hoped that this kit would help her rediscover her love of painting,” Guadagnolo says. The verdict? “I’m happy to report that it worked.”