The science behind Jackson Pollock’s art

Whatever you think of Jackson Pollock’s abstract art, it seems there’s a bit of science to it. In fact, a Google Scholar search unearths nearly 19,000 papers on the subject.

The latest research by Roberto Zenit, from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, and colleagues adds a detailed technical analysis from a fluid dynamics perspective.

Their key discovery, published in the journal PLOS ONE, reveals that Pollock’s technique is carefully executed to avoid what is known as coiling instability.

“When a jet, or filament, oozes down into itself, it may coil,” Zenit explains. “The best example is honey dripping onto toast – the filament forms coils when it lands.

“Coiling happens when the fluid is too viscous,” he adds. “Gravity pushes down, but the liquid doesn’t want to flow… so it coils to find a balance.”

Pollock, who died in 1956, is considered one of America’s most influential artists of the Twentieth Century, with his radical works captivating art buffs, historians and scientists alike.

Films of him in action lend themselves to scientific analysis of his technique, which involved rhythmically pouring a continuous stream of paint onto a horizontal canvas, using a device such as a stick, knife or brush to regulate the flow.

It eventually came to be known as fractal expressionism – a representation of nature’s patterns, inspiring scientists to make comparisons with nature’s systems and to explore how he managed to achieve this.

Zenit, who was intrigued by the technicalities of the fluid method, saw the historical videos as an opportunity to gain insights into how Pollock painted.

He and his team carefully observed the speed and height of the artist’s unique painting action, then recreated it so they could zone in on what he was doing. 

“We can vary one thing at a time so we can decipher the key elements of the technique,” he says. “For example, we could vary the height from which the paint is poured and keep the speed constant to see how that changes things.”

Thus, the researchers made a connection between his technique and classical hydrodynamic instability (coiling instability), contradicting previous suggestions that the curved lines resulted from this instability.

“What we found is that he moved his hand at a sufficiently high speed and a sufficiently short height such that this coiling would not occur,” says Zenit.

They also showed that the paint filaments did not fragment into droplets – suggesting that descriptions of his painting style as a “dripping” technique are not accurate: dripping implies that a fluid breaks up into discrete droplets whereas Pollock’s fluid filaments tended to be continuous rather than fragmented.

That analysis showed that another hydrodynamic instability was avoided, Zenit explains.

It gets more technical. Like many painters, Pollock used solvents to alter the fluid properties of his paints, creating varying thicknesses. The researchers found that with more viscous paint he would reduce the height and increase the speed of his movements, and vice versa with thinner paint – in all instances carefully avoiding coiling instability.

The results of this research could help authenticate the artist’s coveted paintings.

“If you see a painting with filaments with too many coils or droplets, it is unlikely that Pollock painted it,” says Zenit.

The study is also part of a new line of research aiming to understand painting from a fluid mechanics perspective, which the authors suggest could have practical applications for instances where coiling is undesirable, like inkjet printing or fabricating optic fibres.

“Painters are experts in manipulating fluids, so are fluid mechanicians,” says Zenit. “This gives us an opportunity to learn from each other.”

How – and how not – to do it

In the first video below, paint is deposited on a moving canvas from distance low enough and at a speed high enough to avoid coiling.

In the second, something is out, and the result is clear to see.


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