Mass Production of Masterpieces

Seventeen years ago, New York Times contributor William Hamilton wrote: “Some distant day, anthropologists may discover what was surely the tribal art of 20th-century American suburbia: paint-by-number paintings.”

It’s not so easy to find them these days outside of the Smithsonian Museum of American History, though there’s a limited selection on Amazon. I should know: I got hooked a couple of summers ago when visiting my mother in Detroit. She is an actual artist and teaches my kids painting techniques when we visit. Cheekily, I bought a paint-by-number (deer in the woods) so I could participate in the fun without really trying, but they have since become my summer pastime obsession.

It was fitting that I started this silly hobby in Detroit. The concept was the brainchild of Dan Robbins, an artist who worked in the auto industry, and Max Klein, owner of the Palmer Show Card Paint Company based in Detroit. Robbins was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s practice of leaving numbered instructions for his assistants and Klein was drawn to the marketing opportunity. The rest is, as we say, history. Paint-by-number sets became wildly popular for a few years in the 1950s. More companies latched on to the idea, and sales soared to over $80 million in 1953.

Chinoiserie in Trade

I’m currently in a chinoiserie phase, painting birds sitting on blossoms and the like. The kits are made or distributed by companies with Chinese sounding names, but it’s hard to discern what the parent companies are. What I could find was trade statistics for paint-by-number kits’ three components: brushes, a canvas, and little tubs of plastic acrylic paints. China accounts for 48 percent of the world’s exports in the broad customs category of brooms, mops, and brushes, and China exports 57 percent of tariff code 5901.90.10, “painting canvas of other textile fabrics, fabric weighting no less than 50 percent.” But when it comes to the acrylic paint, China ships just 1.9 percent of global exports. The European Union dominates global trade in such paints at an over 80 percent share, followed by North America. Even with its relatively small share, China exported $105 million worth of such paint in 2016 – maybe as part of paint-by-number kits.

paint-by-number

Bristling About Unfair Trade

Whatever the true provenance, digging into trade in paint-by-number kits offers a hidden trade story. In 1986, the Commerce Department sided with a petition from American brush manufacturers when it concluded that natural bristle paintbrushes and brush heads from China were being sold at below fair market value in the United States. It imposed an anti-dumping order that added a 127 percent duty to imported brushes from China. The anti-dumping duty was sustained through three subsequent reviews and increased to 351.9 percent after the 2003 review.

Twenty-four years later, the Commerce Department revoked the order as part of a 2010 sunset review, citing “changed circumstances,” though the same analysis from previous reviews could still apply: removing the duty was likely to result in a resumption of dumped product from China. However, interested U.S. parties did not provide sufficient input to warrant continuation of the order. The dumping order appeared to be a finger in the dike, staving off a flood of imports of cheaper Chinese paint brushes, but perhaps a more apt analogy is whack-a-mole.

Painting Outside the Lines

What often happens in dumping cases is that the offending companies seek to circumvent the order in some way. In this case, the volume of imported natural bristle brushes from China appeared to drop from 738 million a year in 1984 to around six percent of that volume by 2008. However, during that time, a lack of differentiation in customs classification obscured the shift in shipments from natural bristles to synthetic filament brushes. Dumping duties won’t fully explain that market shift – for example, paint technology changed over that time too – but it’s a familiar outcome where some form of tariff arbitrage occurs to keep market share. At the same time, exports of all types of brushes from China rose to other markets, tripling to Canada and nearly doubling to Europe. New Zealand, apparently worried about Chinese producers seeking other outlets for “dumped” brushes, applied its own anti-dumping order against brush imports from China in 1988.

Seeing the Whole Picture

Despite the significant sales of brushes from China in the U.S. market, there are still plenty of American brush makers. They tend to thrive by operating in niche segments of the brush market. Some manufacturers are craftsmen, catering to professional painters who will pay for reliable supply of higher quality brushes. Others are brush innovators, creating brushes for specific purposes like those with beaver hair used to lay down a sheen on boutique chocolates, or the specialty brushes used to clean pipes in nuclear reactors. They are definitely not the brushes that come in my paint-by-number kits, which are vexing – the hairs splay unhelpfully as I try to stay inside the lines.

Paint-by-number kits were ridiculed by the art community when they were introduced in 1951. But the idea that anyone could produce wall-worthy images of wild animals, exotic bullfighters, or even The Last Supper, was so popular that Palmer Paint sold 12 million kits under its Craft Master label in its first three years. The Eisenhower White House even put up a paint-by-number gallery in the West Wing. I’m not sure why this hobby hasn’t made a comeback in the age of mindful coloring, but if it was good enough for White House walls, paint-by-number paintings are surely good enough for mine.