Column is a monthly feature that explores the world
of creativity and aesthetics.
Painting By Numbers
de Sousa, Director, AbleStable
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...
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
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
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?
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
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
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