Paint by Number

I recently had a revelation about my thesis. This of course has come at the perfect time. Me, being the artist that I am, and not the mathematician that I am (although I have enjoyed math in the past, I haven’t taken a course in it since my junior year of high school), I was beginning to worry that if I was continually referencing Michael Ruhlman’s ratios, I would have to know them all by heart. As much as I wish I could say, yes, this will be a breeze (and for those of you with photographic memories, I envy you right now), I take after my mom with a bit of dyslexia and have a hard time memorizing numbers.

Basically if I didn’t log a phone number in my brain by the end of college, it’s good as gone. Names, faces, words, books, images…great at remembering…numbers…not so much. It dawned on me that although ratios is a fantastic way to approach cooking, I needed something else to break it down. Something a bit more basic, for those of us who aren’t math whizzes. And that’s when it hit me! I remember back to the days when I was beginning to draw and paint, my pictures weren’t masterpieces (although my mother may argue otherwise), and I was given a paint by number as a gift. I followed the instructions and a few hours later…voila, a masterpiece. I was so proud that I was able to stay inside the lines and paint a “real” picture. Why couldn’t I use this same idea and apply it to cooking? A sort of “cook by number” approach??? I loved this idea and even went so far as to contact a Trademark consultant, Cherelle Johnson, about trademarking the original slogan/phrase “cook by number” (this was a very fruitful discussion, but more on this at another time).

I assumed that the Paint by Number process would be quite intuitive for me, seeing as how I’ve done it before and I make art for a living. But before setting out to do this, I asked around to see if people remembered the “paint by number” kits, and most (non-artists, mind you) said no until I jogged their memory with a quick description. For most it brought back fun childhood memories and some even said that it was the “best thing” they’ve ever painted. This was inspirational, and to top it all off, my good friend Mary Lowe stated the most glaringly obvious question, “well, have you done one recently? If not, then you need to…” just the kick in the butt I needed.

So I had to do it. I went out in search of a paint by number kit. Went to four different art stores and none of them carried them anymore! Much to my dismay I had to resort to ordering one online. But the following photos show the process of my paint by number experience.

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After opening the box, I unpacked everything up, saw what they gave me, read the directions in full, and set off to gather the rest of the missing pieces. I began to set up and I realized that the instructions they gave me, although good and basic, were missing some key components. First, being an artist I realized I needed to see the colors I was going to be mixing, so I needed a white paper under my plastic to be able to see the colors on top of it. Next I realized that the plastic wrap, although a great idea, not very “stationary”, so I grabbed some artist tape and taped the newspaper, white sheet of paper and plastic down on the table. I however did not heed the direction to cover my clothing, and thankfully the paint was water-based, so the unexpected paint splatter came out of my clothes.

the final piece.

and the aftermath.

Initially I was quite annoyed by the microscopically tiny spaces I had to paint with the cheap brush. There were too many places to paint and no clear place to start. But I dove in anyways working from the bottom up basically. I followed the directions (for the most part), and tried my best to stay inside the lines.  I began a pros and cons list, so here it is:

+ simple directions
+ single tool
+ comes with everything you need (they provide part of the mise en place…and give you a list for what you need)
+ there are different levels of expertise (I chose an Intermediate painting because I couldn’t find an Easy one)
+ it was fun seeing the painting come to life
+ intuitive system (paint with color 1 in all spaces with a 1 in them)
+ mesmerizing and calming (after I got over the initial annoyance)
+ made me slow down
+ easy to clean up after

– it took quite a while longer than I anticipated
– SUPER tiny spaces (hard to read, even with good eyes!)
– hard to stay inside the lines (because of frayed paint brush and tiny spaces)
– too many mixing variables
– no place to “start”
– mixed paint dried quickly


I quite enjoyed myself, and although the final piece isn’t a masterpiece, it is a basic measure of “good”, much like the idea of ratios. Now, I’ve been doing some research and brainstorming and I’m working on creating a system that uses this intuitive format, familiar process and playful approach and applying it to cooking.



2 thoughts on “Paint by Number

  1. Kat, loving this concept. I am totally inept at cooking mostly because i think the directions suck and i don’t understand writing as much as visuals. They are made for people who already know what they are doing, or for the literal/logical types and my brain is too obtuse to get it all the time. This would be such a sweet way to explain cooking. Love where you’re going with this blog too! XO

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