As It Happens

Jackson Pollock was a master of physics as well as art, new study suggests

A new study suggests that Jackson Pollock had a innate understanding of physics, whether he knew it or not.

Scientists say the abstract painter developed a technique to avoid what's known as 'coiling instability'

In this 1949 photograph by Martha Holmes supplied by LIFE magazine, artist Jackson Pollock drops paint onto canvas at his studio in the Long Island hamlet of Springs, N.Y. (Martha Holmes/LIFE/Associated Press)

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A new study suggests that Jackson Pollock had a innate understanding of physics, whether he knew it or not.

The late abstract painter is known for pioneering the "drip technique" in which he drizzled, poured and splashed household paint onto a horizontal surface.

While the vibrant shapes and patterns he created in his art may look haphazard or even accidental, Pollock was always insistent that he had complete control over the the flow of the paint.

A new study out of Brown University in Rhode Island backs him up on that, concluding that Pollock must have painstakingly developed a technique that uses the concept of fluid dynamics to make the paint hit the canvas in exactly the way he wanted it to.

"He manipulated the fluids in an expert way to produce the textures Pollock is famous for," Brown engineering professor Roberto Zenit, co-author of the study, told As It Happens guest host Megan Williams. 

"What was he thinking? What was he doing? He must have known something deeply about the physics of the liquids even though he was not conscious about it, because he did not have a technical training, like we do [as] engineers."

The study was published Wednesday in the journal PLUS One.

Why Pollock's paint doesn't coil like honey 

At the heart of the study is the question of how Pollock managed to avoid what's known as "coiling instability" in his art. That refers to the tendency of viscous fluids, like paint, to form curls and coils when poured on a surface.

"I don't know if you've ever observed honey dripping on top of toast," Zenit said. "When it lands, it tries to flow, but is too viscous that instead of oozing down, it twists around, it coils."

To understand how Pollock gained control of his paint and avoided making an endless series of unintentional loops, Zenit and his colleagues observed hours of archival footage of the artist at work and measured the speed, distance and angles from which he poured his paint.

Once they had the data they needed, they reproduced Pollock's technique in the lab.

Using a mounted syringe, the researchers dripped paint onto canvas at different speeds and heights until they, too, were able to avoid the coiling.

"What we interpreted is that he probably, like most artists, most painters, he went through a process of empirical testing and experimentation to refine the technique and he would just do these in a certain repetitive way until he found the right conditions for him to paint the way he wanted," Zenit said.

Pollock was also known to play around with the viscosity of his paint using solvents, and would have had to adjust his technique depending on the thickness of the fluid. 

"He knew exactly what he was doing," Zenit said. "He was not avoiding this coiling instability just by chance."

A student takes in a Pollock painting in a Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art. (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)

This is not the first study to examine Pollock's work through a scientific lens.

According to Ars Technica, physicist Andrzej Herczynski and mathematician Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan published a a 2011 article in the journal Physics Today arguing that Pollock's work did, in fact, contain coiling instability — and that it's a technique he employed to his advantage.

A decade earlier, a 2001 study by physicist Richard Taylor posited that Pollock's work contains "fractal patterns" similar to those formed in nature by trees, clouds and coastlines. Those findings were later challenged by Case University physicists Katherine Jones-Smith and Harsh Mathur in a 2006 paper in Nature

For Zenit, applying scientific theory to art is about demonstrating that science is everywhere, and we inherently understand it better than we think we do. 

"There is this view of science being hard and mathematical and not interesting. But, in fact, everything that surrounds us is dictated by the laws of physics," he said. "Even art. Especially art."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff.