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The Column icon The Column: Issue 18

The Library > The Column Archive > The Column 018

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The Column is a monthly feature that explores the world of creativity and aesthetics.

Painting By Numbers
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

Painting by Numbers

As a boy of around ten I remember feeling uncomfortable when I was given a black velvet painting by numbers set. Everyone seemed to be getting one for Christmas that year, and although I knew it was my aunt's way of saying 'here, even I can do it with one of these kits', it just didn't feel right. I felt a sham before I popped open the first tiny plastic tub that held the thick unnatural coloured pigment...

Dark Secrets

Despite my feelings I secretly gave it a try. Kids know as much as adults that taking a short cut to being good at anything doesn't work, but the idea that you might somehow produce a painting even remotely resembling a landscape was tempting.


In the early seventies my aunt hung her own painting by numbers work proudly on the wall. The sets came complete with a white plastic frame and hanging wire. She was meticulous and never allowed herself to stray from the path of numbered prescriptions. Everything was precisely as the original number painting author had set out. Her efforts made her reproductions almost like the box covers depicted, but with one difference, she had made them. I guess her painting by numbers heyday lasted around three years.

Pop Art

It's easy to be disparaging about those who bought one of those painting by numbers kits. No doubt they were popular because they invited anyone, regardless of talent or perceived artistic ability, to paint a picture, although no one dare call it art.

Despite an early and brief dip into the world of cubism, the painting by numbers kits were generally conservative representational scenes. The kits however encouraged a sense of 'visual achievement' in return for relatively little skill or effort, and perhaps it is this above all that explains why Max Klein and Dan Robbins, the makers of Craft Master paint-by-number sets, enjoyed such huge popular success.

Painting by Software

Perhaps graphics software is popular for the same reason today. For relatively little effort it's possible to produce visually complex results that are far more satisfying than any painting by numbers kit could ever have achieved.

In the past our physical ability to move an object was inextricably linked to the production of visual works. The manipulation of a pen, pencil, or brush defined the style of the painter as much as the works composition and form. There's been a shift away from the importance physical movement plays in the creative process as the graphic software we commonly use allows the manipulation of digital images with minimal physical gesture. Some professional graphic designers do however use graphic pressure pads which translate hand pressures and movements into data that can control screen based brushes etc.

Generally however, there's more physical activity in reproducing a painting by numbers canvas than the clicks of a mouse that are needed when working with a graphics program. The difference much of the time is that the graphic designer works with a blank canvas. Or do they?

Colour Impact Software Interface

The screenshot above shows the main interface of Colour Impact, a software tool that provides guidance about developing colour schemes (you'll find a freeware program at AbleStable: Color Scheme Designer which follows the same principle). Click a button and you've a ready made list of colours at your fingertips to use on your website or publication. The principle isn't so far removed from those prepared painting by numbers kits...

Guidance is Good

Graphic designers may not have exact numbers and shapes mapped out before them that they must follow, but pre-defined templates and components (plug-ins) are common tools in every graphics program. Many websites are also devoted to delivering source files that creatives can freely download and learn by, and many professionals use source templates to short cut the development time on their projects. After all, there's no point in reinventing the wheel is there? In the short term, no. What's more, this method's more profitable as the development time is shorter. In the long term, learning by doing will lay far stronger foundations of understanding a given craft.

The Sum of the Whole

A design either works or doesn't. The person using the object or viewing the publication is in general utterly disinterested in the method of its development. If it makes their life easier or is pleasurable, great, if not, they move on. Creatives and artists like to think people are far more fascinated in their egos than in fact they are. People are generally interested in what's in it for them. There are however exceptions.

If you paint by numbers using a software program and you deliver an object or publication the client values, haven't you delivered an effective solution? I'm using the word 'client' both in a commercial context, and to represent someone who views 'art'.

Perhaps the essential ingredients of being an effective creative has more to do with judgment and selection, rather than novelty and originality. Give a child a translucent piece of paper and three elements: a circle, a line, a square. Perhaps they're given templates that can be slipped under the paper that tells them where they might place their shapes. Perhaps they decide the placement of shapes themselves. When they're done, they've either created a form that comes from within, or one reproduced from an external source. The sum of the whole in both will be greater than its parts. The child decides what process is of greater value. No doubt they'll try both...


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Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author.

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