Painting-by-number and “The Practice of Everyday Life”

"Can You Imagine" by Trey Speegle (

My memory may deceive me on this, but it was probably sometime during kindergarten or first grade that the lesson “PAINT-BY-NUMBER = BAD” was impressed on me by either a teacher or a peer (though probably via that kid’s parent). Paint-by-number art kits were “bad” in the sense that – like a coloring book – they were babyish, formulaic, and predictable. And maybe one step worse than a coloring book, that we should look down upon the kits because they dared tell us progressively educated kids which colors we should be using and where.

In The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) French scholar Michel de Certeau writes,“[I]nvention is not unlimited and, like improvisations on the piano or guitar, it presupposes the knowledge and application of codes” (p. 21). Within a fixed and dominant set of rules, consumers resist constraints in sometimes-masked ways. de Certeau writes of “making do” – that sometimes the ways of using are more interesting than what is counted as what is used (p. 35). For example, a child may complete a paint-by-number kit to create the completed project as shown on the box cover, but would that product tell you anything about the process of how the child got there?

The paint-by-number art kit may serve as a cultural text with which a child can “make do.” In Falling for Science (ed. Sherry Turkle), cell biologist Donald Ingber writes of his 1960s childhood fascination with the Venus Paradise Pencil by Number Coloring Set. The kit provided a fixed set of options, but certainly not an explicit menu of them. A child could consider options such as how much pressure to release when applying the pencil to the page, which order to fill in the numbers with the pencils (e.g., all the 1s, then 2s, then 3s…, or maybe all the 5s, then 1s, then 4s…), or to alternately filling in spaces individually by a different pattern all together or no pattern at all.

This way of “reading” a paint-by-number kit supports Stuart Hall’s “encoding/decoding” model and the space for audience’s oppositional reading of a text. A child may purposefully or accidentally swap the designated “2” color for the “4” color, consistently each time or maybe only a couple random times. I believe this falls within de Certeau’s definition of reading and other forms of “consumption” as poaching:

[A] rationalized, expansionist, centralized, spectacular and clamorous production is confronted by an entirely different kind of production, called “consumption” and characterized by its ruses, its fragmentation (the result of circumstances), its poaching, its clandestine nature, its tireless but quiet activity, in short by its quasi-invisibility, since it shows itself not in its own products (where would it place them?) but in an art of using those imposed on it (p. 31).

Where would a child “place” the production process within an apparently-perfectly completed paint-by-number piece? de Certeau embraces the hidden production of cultural meaning-making and doing. The passivity of the child completing the paint-by-number set is challenged. de Certeau links poaching with Descartes’ theories of coded texts (as cited by de Certeau):

And if someone, in order to decode a cipher written with ordinary letters, thinks of reading a B everywhere he finds an A, and reading a C where he finds a B, and thus to substitute for each letter the one that follows it in alphabetic order and if, reading in this way, he finds words that have a meaning, he will not doubt that he has discovered the true meaning or this cipher in this way, even though it could very well be that the person who wrote it meant something quite different, giving a different meaning to each letter… (p. 171).

From "The Scrambled States of America" by Laurie Keller

From "The Scrambled States of America" by Laurie Keller

You could read a B for an A, or paint the red for color 1 in the yellow for color 2 slot – but it all depends on what one defines as their own personal pleasure or satisfaction in their use. I think to some extent early literacy is successful because of making parts of the code personal, codes that are prepackaged for consumption: letters, numbers, or even memorizing the letter pairs of abbreviated names of the US states. For the 6th birthday of one of the children I regularly babysit, I gave as a gift a copy of The Scrambled States of America by Laurie Keller, a book that turns the states into characters with personalities. Maybe I bought it because it reminds me of the way when I was younger I would give the letters of the alphabet different personalities. (I tried to capture this in a cringe-worthy ode in a 9th grade poetry class of mine, per “An Alphabetical Tragedy” below.)

Getting back to Ingber, the kit helped him feel successful: successful in that it was adult-like to end up with painting with the formal features of an adult’s painting, and successful in that it was soothing for a child with colorblindness to read the numbers instead of the colors. When I think about something like the iPad and the analog/digital parallels, young children’s feeling of success must be linked in some way to feeling accomplished like an adult. As well, there are bridges that certain children with varying degrees of special needs, singly and multiply disabled, might possibly be able to cross with alternate pathways to feeling successful. The kits also enabled Ingber to experience the kind of problem solving “aha-moments” that would later help him understand the movement and shape transformation of cancer cells:

I gained much more from the coloring set. After coloring in multiple scattered spaces, I was always elated when I penciled in that key space that caused all the other colored tiles to merge into a single coherent image. The moment always came suddenly, a surprise I learned to anticipate with great expectation. It was in this way that I came to understand the power of the gestalt, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that the overall arrangement of the parts can be as important as the properties of these components (Ingber, pp. 255-256).

Scholar Ian Bogost expands upon previous definitions of “procedural literacy” (Sheil, 1980) and describes it as “the ability to reconfigure basic concepts and rules to understand and solve problems, not just on the computer, but in general” (Bogost, 2005, p. 32). Procedural literacy skills support an understanding of the relationships between various kinds of expertise. “While written and spoken language do require conceptual effort,” writes Bogost, “it’s fallacious to think that visual media like toys and video games do not demand conceptual effort. Engendering true procedural literacy means creating multiple opportunities for learners – children and adults – to understand and experiment with reconfigurations of basic building blocks of all kinds” (p. 36).

This emphasis on plurality in terms of kinds of learners applies not just to young and old, but also to those who access media in ways other than visually. “True” procedural literacy, for example, should also recognize blind and visually impaired children and the building blocks of communication with which they may experiment as “consumers.”

Related links

Pendipity app for iPad – like ChatRoulette, but for drawing
Paint-by-number as high art from artist Trey Speegle
Smithsonian Paint-by-Number Retrospective

The aforementioned poem

“An Alphabetical Tragedy”
Meryl Alper (1998)
In a land of jumble and jargon
I try to make sense of the buildup in my head
The words won’t fit in their places
They repel away from order like north and south
But the letters are just doing their jobs
Making confusion out permanent insanity
The puzzle pieces won’t fit, no matter how I bend and squeeze them
So I command the letters to fit my needs
Desperately speak through each individual letter
Live like support
I am me and they are me
We live in parallel universes
Their land a maze of complex fantasy
And mine is cardboard boxes and vacant crowded streets
If I stare at them hard enough they start to clear
And send a story through my fingers
One day they took over my mind
And wanted their own attention
I was crying out for help
Actually, C was
A and B used to be her best friends
But now she felt just like a third leg to them
D was content in where it was
The day was perfect
Not ready for change
E and F we blessed with order
It was so easy and carefree
They were accustomed to their relationship
But G was a boyfriend who got in the way
And H was his overprotective girlfriend who wouldn’t go away
I was living a disillusioned life
It was all so sad but true
J and K were just leading I on
To think that life was safe and sound
L was an amateur
The little Lolita
Wanted the life of M
And stepped on it’s heels
Wanted to know how it would feel
Trying to take over M’s bond with N
That secure bond like a smooth syncopated melody
That carried over to O
O and P were secret liaison lovers
But their once deep adventure was now common clockwork reality
P was content in the life it now led
Possibility and passion
But there was always the possibility of joining her old crew
Followed the beat of the city
And thrived on the jazz of the new black night
T was once a part of that old-school group
But it had moved on to bigger and better things
Joining the elite finale
U and V always got mistaken for each other
U was flattered, for V was what it dreamed of
But V was ashamed
What’s really in a name, or shape of a letter?
 How could U compare to the glory of V?
So vicious and victorious
W was what she always wanted
The wonder and woman
 But W felt out of place
Just like X did in a bland, John Doe world
As if the glory of her day had passed over the unappreciative years
She yearned
Y was unaware of all the suffering
Let them eat cake she would sob
Because I don’t like plain yellow vanilla cake
I need zest
I need my king Z
And all is right with the world
There once was discord
When the illegitimate 26th letter was born
But Y took care of that mistake
And was queen over the alphabetical tragic kingdom


Bogost, I. (2005). Procedural literacy: Problem solving with programming, systems, & play. Telemedium: The Journal of Media Literacy, 52(1 & 2), 32-36.

de Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sheil, B. A. (1980). Teaching procedural literacy. Proceedings of the ACM 1980 annual conference (p. 125–126). New York: ACM Press. doi:

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