How Jackson Pollock used physics to paint
Pollock made gravity into a 'co-conspirator' as he painted.
Tue, Jul 05, 2011 at 11:03 AM
PAINT DROPS: An Iranian couple looks at an unidentified artwork by Jackson Pollock at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran, Iran. (Photo: Abedin Taherkenareh, ESA/ZUMA Press)
American artist Jackson Pollock was an intuitive master of the flow of fluids, relying on the laws of physics to turn his splashes, drips and drizzles into the iconic abstract creations they came to be.
That's the conclusion of physicists and mathematicians who conducted a careful analysis of the artwork, which is detailed in the latest issue of the journal Physics Today.
The research team looked at Pollock's techniques and the physical aspects of paint on canvas in order to understand the forces at play. [Amazing Images Reveal the Art of Science]
They found that Pollock's drizzles, drips and splashes could be explained by physical phenomena known as jets, drops and sheets. Each is governed by the laws of fluid dynamics, which Pollock exploited using careful technique and manipulating the thickness of his pigments and paints with water and solvents, according to the researchers.
"When Pollock is creating his pieces, he is enlisting gravity as a participant — as a co-conspirator," study researcher Claude Cernuschi, a professor of art history at Boston College, said in a statement. "He has to understand how pigment is going to behave under the laws of gravity. He has to anticipate what is going to happen and work accordingly. There is both spontaneity and control, just as there is in the improvisation of a jazz musician." [6 Weird Facts About Gravity]
Pollock worked on his paintings by loading a stick or trowel with a far greater amount of paint than a brush holds during conventional easel painting. He then released a jet of liquid onto a canvas on the floor below.
This technique, which was captured in still photographs and movies of the artist at work, reflects his efforts to control liquid-jet dynamics in a phenomenon called coiling, the circular motion of the tail of a thinning paint jet, the researchers found. The circular motion is similar to the way a stream of syrup "coils" on a pancake, the authors note.
"By pouring paint in this continuous jet fashion or by dripping it, he incorporated physics into the process of painting itself," study researcher Andrzej Herczynski, a physicist at Boston College, said in a statement. "To the degree that he did and to the degree he varied his materials — by density or viscosity — he was experimenting in fluid dynamics, although his aim was not to describe the physics, but to produce a certain aesthetic effect."
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