An icon of 20th century Modernism, artists and art-lovers alike are familiar with Jackson Pollock and his “action paintings.” His iconic “drip” technique has now become the focus a new paper published last week in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, which meticulously analyzes Pollock’s practice. A team of researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, led by senior study author Roberto Zenit, a professor at Brown’s School of Engineering, set about discovering the science behind the work of the man who famously said “technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.”
“Like most painters, Jackson Pollock went through a long process of experimentation in order to perfect his technique,” Zenit said of the study’s motivations, according to CNN. “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.” Uncovering the secrets behind the Pollock’s work seems to underscore the divide between intention and execution. While Pollock was looking to create a certain way of painting in order to achieve his desired aesthetic, the study’s the research team was looking for the actual mechanics behind the art.
Watching extensive videos of Pollock painting — it’s hard not to conjure up images of the painter crouched over a canvas on the floor, chain smoking and dripping paint from a can — the research team tracked how fast he moved and how close (or far) he was from the canvas. Recreating the technique with their own experimental setup, they were able to isolate the variables, mainly the paint, speed, and distance. By using a syringe placed at varying heights and moving at different speeds, the team hoped to zero in on the most important features of Pollock’s pioneering technique. “We can vary one thing at a time so we can decipher the key elements,” Zenit said. “For example, we could vary the height from which the paint is poured and keep the speed constant.”
The study’s conclusions suggest that the defining characteristic of Pollock’s Abstract Expressionist work, based on hand speed and distance, was avoiding what is know in fluid mechanics as “coiling instability,” or the tendency of a viscous fluid to form curls and coils when poured on a surface. For non-painters, a good example of this is pouring a viscous substance like molasses or honey, and how it piles up on a given surface (like toast) before spreading across it. “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,” Zenit said. The study suggests our current vocabulary for Pollock’s technique isn’t very accurate, as it seems he was actively avoiding “drips” in favor of constant streams of paint.
The implications of this research could go a long way in identifying and authenticating Pollock’s works, where too many tight curls might suggest that the painting was not made following the core principles of his technique. Considering difficulty of detecting a Pollock forgery based simply on aesthetics alone, having a better understanding of physics could be vital. “I consider myself to be a fluid mechanics messenger,” Zenit said. “It’s fascinating to see that painters are really fluid mechanicians, even though they may not know it.”