Abstract Art

The Science Of Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock is known as one of the original abstract expressionists in the modern art movement. His iconic “drip paint” style has memorialized him as the father of splatter paint style art. To the average eye a lot of Pollock’s work looks like it was simply done by soaking a brush with paint and flinging it at a canvas, however, recently researchers took a deeper look into the actual technique, and realized there’s a lot of science behind the pieces. 

According to a study published by CNN, Pollock actually used fluid dynamics to create the unique patterns and motions in his paintings. There’s no concrete evidence to know if Pollock was taking advantage of fluid dynamics consciously, or if it was just a happy accident that occurred through his technique, either way the science is there. Using fluid dynamics basically means assessing the elements of a particular fluid, in this case paints, to greater understand the mechanics of how they’re affected by outside forces, and when they remain stagnant. The motion within each “drip” in Pollock’s paintings are created through a stable coiling process. Pollock never actually used a brush, instead he used a wooden stick (kind of like a tongue depressor but thinner) to collect paint from the can and then pour it directly on the canvas using a spinning motion. This created an overlapping pattern with different strands and filaments of color. These pieces lacked what’s called a “coiling instability,” meaning the curls and coils in the patterns weren’t random, but instead noticeable and purposeful through Pollock’s technique (CNN).

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“Like most painters, Jackson Pollock went through a long process of experimentation in order to perfect his technique. What we were trying to do with this research is figure out what conclusions Pollock reached in order to execute his paintings the way he wanted. Our main finding in this paper was that Pollock’s movements and the properties of his paints were such he avoided this coiling instability,” said said Roberto Zenit, senior study author and a professor in Brown’s School of Engineering to CNN.

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Jackson Pollock’s iconic way of painting is often referred to as a “drip technique” even though he never really did drip his paint onto the canvas. A drip would entail that the patterns would look more like water droplets, but instead there’s more of a continuous flow in the streams of paint. Pollock would work on the floor and would pour his paint effortlessly onto the canvas. 

The researchers who wrote the paper on the science behind the technique deeply analyzed old videos of Pollock at work. When they were making their observations they paid special attention to the speed of his movements, and the distance he typically was from the canvas on the ground. They also wanted to gain a greater understanding on the particular motions of his hand and his painting tools as he worked. This was in a greater effort to see if Pollock truly was just making random shapes with his motions, or if there was a distinct purpose to the movements, it definitely was more of the latter. 

Through their analysis, the researchers were able to conclude that Pollock avoided coiling instability through a fixed speed of motion when he would be painting. Additionally, they concluded that the distance between his hand and the canvas was also intentional to ensure that he would get the perfect spiral shape. The distance, speed, and thickness of the paint was all intentional and is what made a Pollock a Pollock. 

“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. I consider myself to be a fluid mechanics messenger. This is my excuse to talk science. It’s fascinating to see that painters are really fluid mechanicians, even though they may not know it,” said Zenit.