Detail vs. Paintability: The Key Tradeoff in Paint by Number Design

Detail vs. Paintability: The Key Tradeoff in Paint by Number Design

When one of our designers begins the process of turning an image into a paint by number, there are  two things we have to balance that work, to some degree, at cross purposes. One, is that we want to make the final result look as good as possible. Two, we want the final product to be as paintable as possible. You’ll note that the first criteria wants more detail, while the second criteria wants less detail. Striking that balance and finding the right design outcome for our customers is one of the most challenging, and rewarding, things about being a member of our design team. 

Imagine painting each pixel in an actual picture. Even a fairly low to medium resolution photo (1024x1024) has over a million pixels! A photo like that will have over a million regions to paint and would require many thousands of colors. Transforming a photo into a paint by number entails reducing the image’s detail in three key ways to make it paintable.  

First, the number of colors must be reduced to a reasonable number, so we’re not sending thousands of paints to a customer. Typically, we send between 20 and 36 paint colors in each kit. Where that number lands exactly depends on the specific photo and the canvas size. The important thing to understand is that colors that look similar will often be “rounded” to one average color.

Canvas Size

Approximate Colors*

8” x 10”


12” x 15”


16” x 20”


22” x 27”


*More monochromatic pictures (black and white, or a picture of an all green landscape for example) will tend to get fewer unique colors, since it takes less colors to fully capture the original image.

Second, groups of pixels need to be rounded to the same color. There can’t be any single pixel regions - that would be too hard to paint! What’s most important to understand is that really precise detail doesn’t always come through. Far away people, for example, will often be less detailed than closer up people. This is less true on bigger canvases, where we are able to make the final result more detailed without sacrificing paintability. This is because the same image is being mapped onto a larger canvas. A 16" x 20" canvas is actually 4 times as big as an 8" x 10", for example.

Third, we’ll sometimes crop out parts of the photo that we think are less important to free up more space on the canvas for the things we think that the customer cares about most. We do this for two reasons. First, often customers will submit photos that have to be cropped, because the aspect ratio of the photo doesn’t match the aspect ratio of the canvas they bought. Secondly, we find that we can best strike that balance between the visual outcome & paintability by zooming in on the most important subject(s).

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