Elle Crée’s Paint-by-Number Kits Took Off During the Pandemic and Continue to Be Popular

“There’s a lot of research around art therapy and how experiencing creativity can kind of help with mental reset in terms of just allowing a sense of calm.”

Paint by Number (Courtesy Elle Cree)

It was mid-March 2020, the state of Oregon had just gone into pandemic lockdown mode, and Rachel Austen was afraid that the unfolding crisis would force her to let go of the only employee at her 4-year-old paint-by-number kit company, Elle Crée.

“We were working in my home studio,” Austen says. “I just looked at her and was like, ‘Chrissy, I have no idea what’s going to happen here. We will make kits and ship them until there’s no more orders.’”

There was little to be optimistic about. After all, no one would’ve anticipated a mass uptick in leisurely pursuits—particularly one as niche as filling in pre-marked shapes on a canvas with paint—while the world grappled with a deadly new virus. But Elle Crée’s grim outlook quickly reversed.

Austen received a text message from a producer for KPTV’s morning lifestyle program More Good Day Oregon, which had shot footage for a profile of the business a few months before. The showrunners had decided to bump up the segment’s air date. Elle Crée would get its 15 minutes of (local) fame on day one of Oregon’s official quarantine. And there must’ve been plenty of eyeballs glued to TV sets, because the result was an immediate influx of orders.

“At the time, I was like, this is amazing! What a gift! I can’t believe the timing of this has worked out,” Austen recalls. “I can employ Chrissy for longer!”

That period was the beginning of a nationwide hobby boom as people stuck at home with more time on their hands began baking, building, bird watching or picking notes on bass guitars as a form of self-therapy. Turns out, more than a few of those hobbyists also wound up engaged with paint-by-number. The tsunami of orders in the first few months overwhelmed Austen’s small crew—she ended up pausing wholesale requests for about six weeks. But the demand also allowed Elle Crée to grow to six employees and move out of Austen’s house and into a Milwaukie business park.

Elle Cree Photo by Sarah Slusarick.

Not that Austen predicted any sort of boost in popularity for paint-by-number kits when she founded the company. In fact, when she initially launched Elle Crée as a way to turn her illustrations into a product that could spur creativity in others, Austen soon discovered the concept hardly resonated with most.

“Paint-by-number just wasn’t on people’s radar,” she explains. “So mostly the comments I would get went something like, ‘Oh, paint-by-number! I remember that from when I was a kid.’ That was the reference point. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, paint-by-number! Everybody’s doing it!’”

After “reverse-engineering” the market research, as Austen puts it, attending craft bazaars and wholesale trade shows in order to observe what prospective customers were drawn to and what wasn’t quite clicking, Elle Crée canvases and miniature paint pots began landing in independent gift shops across the Pacific Northwest. Online sales also grew. In 2019, she snagged her first national brand buy with Blick Art Materials. And later this year, kits are headed to store shelves that belong to an even bigger name: Barnes & Noble.

When making brush strokes on one of Elle Crée’s landscapes, still-life settings, or portraits (there is a historical figure line that includes everyone from RBG to Frida Kahlo to Michelle Obama fringed in peonies), you can do so with the confidence of knowing that the canvas and paint are both made in the U.S. (Austen says most kits are manufactured overseas), and environmental stewardship is a company priority. For instance, the only element besides the artwork itself that can’t be tossed into your curbside bin of cardboard and plastics is the paint canisters, so Austen created a program where customers who return them receive a coupon on their next purchase.

Paint by Number (Courtesy Elle Cree)

“It was really important to me that I wasn’t adding to the waste problem,” she says, “that I was creating a product that was sustainable, and essentially the components could be recycled or were intended to be loved and cherished and displayed for years to come.”

As for the continued interest in paint-by-number, even as we emerge from the pandemic and our obsession with everything from sourdough starters to wood-whittling begin to fade, Austen chalks it up to simple stress relief.

“There’s a lot of research around art therapy and how experiencing creativity can kind of help with mental reset in terms of just allowing a sense of calm,” she says. “It kind of blocks out all the other noise. At the same time, I feel like I’m processing things in the background.”

And if you’re really looking to zone out, paint-by-number might just be the ultimate meditative activity, beating out coloring since there is one less decision to be made on the part of the participant. The hues are already chosen for you.

For anyone who hasn’t yet dipped their brush into the world of paint-by-number but is curious, Austen does have some advice: Become absorbed with the activity itself and just chill.

“I would say not to be intimidated by it,” she says. “It’s one of the hobbies that has the smallest barrier to entry because everyone has held a paintbrush at some point and everyone generally understands the concept. So it’s really about giving yourself the time and space to slowly create something and enjoy the process.”

See the rest of Willamette Week’s Best of Portland 2023 here!

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.