Saturday, October 21, 2017

Lessons from paint-by-numbers

When I was little, I loved paint-by-numbers sets. If you don't know, they were a template with numbered shapes marked on them, accompanied by numbered paints. Match the numbered paint with the numbered shapes on the template, and you would essentially be "coloring in" a painting, ending with a beautiful oil masterpiece!

It sounds simple, but the more complicated versions used very small shapes to get a finer gradation of shading and a picture with more depth. With such small shapes, the printer often couldn't fit the shape's paint number inside the shape, so s/he would put it in an adjacent, larger shape, with an arrow pointing to the shape in question. The problem was, if you painted the colors in the wrong order, you could paint over a number and arrow before getting to use it as an indicator for its neighboring shape.*

I got very frustrated with one such project while staying at my grandmother's. I was very much a perfectionist who couldn't stand when things weren't working the way I thought they should, and when I couldn't do something I thought I should be able to do. I may even have thrown a bit of a tantrum.

After calming me down, my grandmother suggested a solution: use a pencil to write in, myself, the color numbers inside each shape, making all those infernal arrows unnecessary. (I could write smaller than the printer could print.) Then I could paint in any order, not worrying about painting over a necessary number. Thank God for Grandma.

It was my Bird by Bird moment (if you know the allusion to the Anne Lamott book in which her father told her overwhelmed brother to write his big school report on birds by taking it "bird by bird"). So many times, a task that seems impossible can be broken down into simpler steps. We can find workarounds, solutions that fit our own way of working. These skills come in handy in writing, because there are so many different ways to write, and not every way works every time. And in the end, no matter how big or complicated the project, we can only write it one word at a time.

*It is possible that if you painted the colors starting with #1 and proceeding from there, the arrow problem didn't crop up. Believe it or not, it never occurred to me to paint the colors in numbered order--not until years later did this possible solution come to me. At the time, I chose to use the colors in the order that made sense to me then, and for simpler pictures it didn't matter what order you used. Only the complicated pictures used those arrows. But I'm glad my grandmother came up with this more innovative solution, because I think I learned more from it.


  1. I didn't do much painting by numbers when I was a kid, but I think I would've done as you did, and painted in the order that made sense to me. I'm quite sure I would not have started at 1. Good call from your grandma! Maybe she still whispers "solutions" in your ear as you write?

    1. The main thing I learned is, "Keep looking, there's probably a solution somewhere!"

  2. Grandmothers are a source of treasure, aren't they Jennifer? I remember those paint by number sets. I always wanted to start with the middle and paint my way out to the [supposedly] bigger areas of the artwork. You see, I thought that was how artists painted, and of course, I thought I was an least when the painting turned out correctly. Many times, it didn't. Hope all is well!

    1. It's funny that even in something like a paint-by-numbers set, where they have boiled it down to what they probably thought were a foolproof set of rules and instructions, we still want to assert our creativity, our uniqueness.
      Thanks for stopping by!