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Painting with science. Jackson Pollock (far right) seems to have utilized physics in his abstract artwork.

PRNewsFoto/Mark Borghi Fine Art Inc., Herbert Matter/AP Images

Jackson Pollock, Physicist?

Known as "Jack the Dripper," Jackson Pollock created his signature paintings of overlapping curls and streaks by dipping a stick or trowel into a container of paint and letting the paint stream onto canvas or paper spread on the floor. His iconic paintings appear to be manifestations of pure creativity. Yet Pollock was a bit of a physicist, exploiting fluid dynamics and the interplay between viscosity and gravity to achieve the effects he wanted, according to an analysis of his work by an art historian, a physicist, and a mathematician.

"He is enlisting gravity as a co-conspirator in his process," says Claude Cernuschi, an art historian at Boston College and a member of the team.

For example, Pollock apparently intuited a surprising relationship between viscosity and flow rate that Andrzej Herczyński, a physicist at Boston College, and L. Mahadevan, a mathematician at Harvard University, were able to derive a mathematical equation for. The more viscous the paint, the faster it flows from the trowel. This relationship seems to contradict the familiar observation that water flows faster than honey. But Pollock was using a trowel to pull paint out of a can rather than pour the paint directly from a container, and the higher viscosity meant that more paint would initially stick to the trowel. That increase in volume would then boost the rate at which the paint would run back off the trowel when Pollock held it over a canvas, the researchers explain in the June issue of Physics Today.

Take Untitled. In this work, Pollock seems to have adjusted the viscosity of his paint to take advantage of "coiling instability," in which a stream of thick liquid coils like syrup does on a pancake. By measuring the thickness of the lines and the radius of the coils in the painting, Herczyński and Mahadevan were able to estimate the flow rate of Pollock's paint as he moved his hand across the canvas. As Pollock increased his lateral speed, the lines he created progressed from loops to cusps to undulating sinusoids.

These coils appear infrequently in Pollock's works. Cernuschi hypothesizes that Pollock usually tuned the viscosity of his paint to avoid them, because letting the paint spontaneously coil was "relinquishing too much control, too much of his personal agency" to physics. Another possibility is that the coils are present in other paintings but obscured by the coarse canvases Pollock liked to use, Herczyński says.

But Pollock, who never graduated from high school, certainly wasn't aiming to perform physics experiments, says Ellen Landau, an art historian at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. "I doubt sincerely he knew much of anything about physics," she says. "He would not have been consciously aiming to experiment with fluid dynamics as understood by physicists." Still, Landau says, the new analysis provides scientific evidence to refute the notion sometimes leveled against Pollock that his paintings were just the product of random flinging of paint that a child or a monkey could reproduce.

"What Pollock produced without a specific scientific knowledge base seems a quintessential illustration of the fact that art and science are not such emphatically different side-of-the-brain activities as so many believe," she says.

Harsh Mathur, a physicist at Case Western who has mathematically analyzed the structure of Pollock's works, says the new analysis increased his appreciation of Pollock's paintings because it brings attention to the fluid mechanics that go into generating them. In the paper, the authors also proposed a new painting technique—painting with dripping sheets of pigment—with the potential to create artistic effects as memorable as Pollock's, Mather says. "Here's a case where physics might suggest something that artists can go out and do."