Image: MoMA
Mary Altaffer  /  AP
A visitor strolls by the artwork of Jackson Pollock at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
updated 7/3/2011 8:06:16 PM ET 2011-07-04T00:06:16

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.

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"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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Photos: 2011

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  1. Pole shift happens

    Princeton University's annual Art of Science exhibition explores the interplay between science and art. This image, titled "Chaos and Geomagnetic Reversals," won first place in the 2011 exhibit. The magnetic field of the Earth has reversed its polarity several hundred times during the past 160 million years. Polarity reversals are known to be strongly irregular and chaotic. This image shows a simple deterministic model illustrating the geomagnetic reversals. (Christophe Gissinger / Dept. of Astrophysical Sciences/ Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Deconstructing a tree

    Zhen James Xiang's image, which won second place in the Art of Science exhibition, builds upon his research into algorithms that split an image into pieces in a way that best captures important image structure. "The algorithm used here recursively cuts an image into smaller rectangular pieces," Xiang says. "For each cut, a larger rectangle is divided either horizontally or vertically into two equal smaller rectangles. This results in a division of the input image into many rectangular pieces, similar to those shown, organized into a data structure called a dyadic tree." (Zhen James Xiang / Dept. of Electrical Engineering) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Dust to dust, to planets?

    Planets form from the coagulation of tiny dust particles in a gaseous protoplanetary disk, requiring growth over 40 orders of magnitude in particle mass. A crucial stage in planet formation involves making kilometer-sized planetesimals out of pebbles. This image illustrates this process: Aerodynamical interactions between the gas and the pebbles collect the latter into very dense clumps (bright regions). In turn, these clumps become the building blocks of planets. The image, which won third place in the exhibition, is taken from a hydrodynamical simulation of a protoplanetary disk. (Xuening Bai / James M. Stone (fac) Dept. of Astrophysical Sciences Planets) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Fireworks

    Arsenic sulfide dissolved in a solution displays colorful random patterns after being spin-coated and baked on a chrome-evaporated glass slide. (Yunlai Zha / Dept. of Electrical Engineering) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Tropical fish

    The random patterns created by arsenic sulfide on a chrome-evaporate glass slide take on the appearance of a colorful fish straight out of a Disney movie. (Yunlai Zha / Dept. of Electrical Engineering) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Intelligence design

    This is a pyramidal neuron from the hippocampus, a part of the brain where some types of memories are formed. This neuron has been labeled with fluorescent antibodies so that we can visualize microtubules (shown in green), which form a structural network inside the neuron; and insulin receptors (shown in red), which are cell surface proteins that instruct neurons to make connections with other neurons. These connections, called synapses, become stronger or weaker as memories are constructed. (Lisa Boulanger / Dept. of Molecular Biology and Princeton Neuroscience Institute) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Baby dragon lung

    This is a detail of an immunofluorescence image of the surface of the lung of a bearded dragon embryo (Pogona vitticeps). Nuclei are stained red and the actin cytoskeleton is stained green. The image reveals a nested hierarchy of tubes designed for effective gas exchange, which develops in the embryo even before the animal breathes air. (Celeste Nelson / Dept. of Chemical and Biological Engineering) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Patterning the embryo

    These are vertical cross-sectional images of embryos of Drosophila melanogaster -- otherwise known as the common fruit fly. The images, obtained using a confocal microscope, are of embryos stained with antibodies in order to visualize molecules that subdivide the embryo into three tissue types: muscle, nervous system and skin. Obtaining such images is an engineering challenge because it requires upright positioning of a tiny embryo, which is ellipsoid in shape and only a half-millimeter long. (Yoosik Kim, Stanislav Shvartsman / Dept. of Chemical and Biological Engineering) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Swimming side-by-side

    As engineers develop next-generation autonomous underwater vehicles, they look for inspiration from the designs observed in nature. For this image, two artificial fish fins are placed side-by-side and flapped in-phase with each other as water flows past the fins (flow direction is up). Small hydrogen bubbles (the white part of the image) make it possible to visualize the wake of the fins. The interaction of the fins creates two repeating patterns of swirling vortices known as vortex streets. (Birgitt Boschitsch, Peter Dewey, Alexander Smits / Dept. of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Wireless sensor on tooth

    A wireless graphene sensor is patterned on water-soluble silk film. The image shows the sensor transferred onto a cow tooth surface by dissolving the supporting silk film. The gold electrodes and coil form the main components of the wireless circuit. The graphene layer under the electrodes can detect bacterial contamination and can be read out wirelessly. (Manu Sebastian Mannoor, Michael McAlpine / Dept. of Mechanical and Aerospace Enginneering) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Iron lotus

    A ferrofluid is a liquid mixed with small metallic particles that can become magnetized in the presence of a magnetic field. Ferrofluids are used in electronics, spacecraft and medicine, but are also a fascinating way to visualize a magnetic field in three dimensions. A ferrofluid is known for having properties of two different states of matter: liquid and solid. Whether a ferrofluid is a liquid or a solid depends upon whether a magnetic field is present. Unlike a flower floating on the surface of a pond (where the flower is a solid, and the water a liquid), with a ferrofluid the "flower" and the "water" are the same material. (Elle Starkman / Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Microscopic sea creature

    This creature was imaged using the PRISM imaging and Analysis Center Quanta 200f Environmental Scanning Electron Microscope, which reveals nanostructures in their native state with extraordinary three-dimensional clarity. ESEM images are originally black and white. Colors can be added subsequently (such as the green and orange in this image) by assigning a given color to a specific gray scale. The creature we see in this image is about 15 microns wide, which is a fraction of the width of a human hair. (Nan Yao, Gerald Poirier, Shiyou Xu / PRISM Imaging and Analysis Center) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Dusty cross

    To understand the fundamental building blocks of nature, scientists create large particle accelerators to accelerate and collide beams of particles. To understand the accelerators themselves, scientists create smaller machines to simulate the behavior of these beams of particles. This tabletop machine was created using a ring stand from a chemistry laboratory, two metal spheres and a power supply. In this demonstration, electrically charged bits of dust have been dropped into the gap between the ring and the spheres. The dust grains are alternately pushed and pulled by the oscillating voltage. Since they are heavy, and the voltage oscillates quickly, the particles never have time to get pushed or pulled all the way out of the system. They stay trapped. (Photo by Elle Starkman, Joe Caroll, Gary Stark and Andy Carpe Erik Gilson.) (Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The orange and the black

    At top is a simulated compound-eye view showing how a Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly sees another Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly from different distances. The largest image, at top right, is what the butterfly would see at 18 centimeters' distance. The lower image provides a simulated view at 7 centimeters (left), compared with the original photograph (right). At 18 centimeters a striking phenomenon occurs: If the “eye” or the subject moves slightly, large portions of the field of view seem to flash between all orange and all black. It may be more than coincidence that 18 centimeters (7 inches) is the typical courtship distance for this species. The regularity of the compound eye may act as a cross-correlation filter for the regularity of the spotted wing design. (Henry S. Horn / Dept. of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Celestial alchemy

    This image was captured using a microscope with dark field imaging and a red light filter. What you see is a single bend in a superconducting microwave coplanar transmission line, magnified to 50 times its original size. What appears to be an aqueous solution of cosmic sediment in a test tube is actually a collection of impurities on the surface of the transmission line that accumulated during the fabrication process. (Devin Underwood, James Raftery, Will Shanks / Dept. of Electrical Engineering) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Time to clean the carpet

    Hybrid photovoltaic nanodevices offer the promise of low-cost, large-area conversion of solar energy to electricity. Nanostructures of zinc oxide can be used in applications ranging from solar energy harvesting to biosensing. However, the ability to control the size and position of these nanostructures is crucial for fabricating efficient nanodevices. This is a scanning electron micrograph of zinc oxide nanostructures prepared by low-temperature hydrothermal methods. The nanoarray came out in this less-than-ideal velvety rug configuration. "Ultimately we were able to manufacture nanoarrays with the ideal configuration," the researchers report. "However, they are much less visually interesting than this." (Luisa Whittaker and Yueh-Lin "Lynn" Loo / Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Caustic map

    This is a caustic directional map of a teapot. Each layer represents light from a different latitude: The inner layer is at 90 degrees, the next at 75, then 60, 45, 30, and 15. Each image within the layer represents a different longitudinal angle. The images are arranged roughly corresponding to where the caustic would shine for light hitting from that specific direction; thus, an image at the top left corresponds to light coming in nearly horizontally from the bottom right. (Rafi Romero / 2012 Dept. of Computer Science) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. The golden spiral

    Beautiful and elegant geometrical curves are present everywhere in the universe on a vast range of scales, from the nautilus to a galaxy. In this image, a curve is applied to a laser cavity design. "By connecting a spiral semiconductor micro-structure to a straight one, we achieved a coupled-cavity design, in which the spiral section enhances the mode selectivity that would facilitate single-mode operation of Quantum Cascade lasers and potentially other types of semiconductor lasers," Peter Q. Liu says. "The photo shows the top view of a laser with such a cavity design. The surface of the device is covered with gold for conducting electric current." (Peter Q. Liu / Dept. of Electrical Engineering Spirals) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. The flow around a black hole

    This is a simulation showing the region around a black hole. The outflow of material is powered by magnetic fields that obstruct the infall of matter onto the hole. The black dot in the center shows the black hole horizon; gray lines show matter streamlines; red lines show field lines; and green lines show the boundary between the inflow and outflow. (Alexander Tchekhovskoy, Ramesh Narayan, Jonathan C. McKinney / Princeton / Harvard / Stanford) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Christophe Gissinger / Dept. of Astrophysical Sciences/ Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory
    Above: Slideshow (19) Science meets art - 2011
  2. Jerry Ross / Princeton University Art of Science Competition
    Slideshow (16) Science meets art - 2010


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