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The Science Behind the Pouring/Dripping Painting Style of Jackson Pollock

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

Born in Wyoming in 1912, Jackson Pollock was a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement. Pollock built his reputation on his unusual technique of pouring or dripping household paint onto the canvas. Painting from all angles, it was also called action painting as he covered the entire canvas with the force of his whole body. Called an extreme form of abstraction that divided his critics, researchers have recently taken to studying Pollock’s technique. Analyzing the physics behind Pollock’s technique, a team of researchers at Brown University and National Autonomous University of Mexico say the artist had a sharp understanding of a classic phenomenon in fluid dynamics. Whether Pollock was aware of the science behind his technique will never be known.

Jackson Pollock’s Journey to the Art World

While born in Cody Wyoming, Pollock’s mother took him and his brother Charles to live with her in San Diego, California when he was just ten months old. He spent much of his childhood living in California and Arizona. Expelled from several high schools, Pollock explored the Native American culture during surveying trips he went on with his father. Mexican muralists, in particular Jose Clemente Orozco, were a heavy influence on him. Later in his career he would refer to Orozco’s fresco Prometheus as the “greatest painting in North America”.

It was in 1930 after moving to New York City with his brother Charles Pollock that Pollock began to pursue art. He studied alongside his brother under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League. While Pollock was not moved by Benton’s subject of rural America, Benton’s rhythmic use of paint and his passionate independence made a lasting impact on him.

It was Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros who introduced Pollock to the use of liquid paint during an experimental workshop in New York City. A few years later Pollock was pouring paint on his canvases. It was after his move to Springs, New York that he began using what he referred to as his “drip” technique on canvases laid out on his studio floor.

Jack the Dripper

Thomas Hart, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miro were all influencers of Jackson Pollock’s work. Pollock was using synthetic resin-based paints called alkyd enamels, a novel medium at the time. He talked of using household paints instead of artist’s paints as a natural growth that came from a need. His tools were hardened brushes, sticks, and even basting syringes from the kitchen. Pollock’s pouring and dripping of paint is thought to be one of the origins of the term action painting. For Pollock, the technique offered an immediate means of creating art as paint was literally flowing from whatever tool he chose onto the canvas. He defied the convention of painting on an upright surface as he viewed and applied paint from all directions. After seeing the work of Ukrainian American artist Janet Sobel in Peggy Guggenheim’s The Art of This Century Gallery in 1945, it was said Sobel influenced Pollock as they were the first all-over paintings he had seen. It was then that Pollock moved away from figurative representation and challenged the tradition of easel and brush. Using large canvases, he used the force of his entire body to paint. In 1956 Time magazine dubbed Pollock “Jack the Dripper” because of his painting style. 

Pollock’s most famous paintings were created during the “drip period” that lasted from 1947 – 1950. It was after a four-page spread in Life magazine in 1949 that Pollock became famous. The magazine’s headline asked, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”. 

After 1951, Pollock’s work was darker in color and included a collection painted in black on unprimed canvases. The paintings were referred to as his “Black pourings”. They were exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York to obsolete sales. Pollock returned to using color and his work moved to the Sidney Janis Gallery.

Taking a Deeper Look

Researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico and Brown University of Rhode Island embarked on a study to find out about the science behind Pollock’s “drip” technique. The researchers were trying to figure out what conclusions Pollock came to in order to accomplish paintings the way he wanted. Finding this out would highlight the divide between intention and execution. The researchers searched for the actual mechanics behind the art.

The team of researchers spent many hours watching videos of Pollock at work. One of the things researchers tracked as they watched was his movement and how fast he went. Additionally, they tracked how close or how far he was from the canvas. In a fascinating study that was the first of its kind, they recreated his technique with an experimental set up. They isolated the variables, in this case the paint, speed, and distance. Using a syringe placed at varying heights and moving at a number of different speeds, they zeroed in on the most important features of his technique. In order to interpret the key elements, they varied the height from which the paint was poured at continual speeds.

Speed + Distance = Avoiding Hydrodynamic Instabilities  

After the intense study was completed researchers found the combination of the artist’s speed of his hand, his distance from the canvas, and the adhesiveness of his paint were designed to avoid coiling instability. As an example, pouring honey on toast you will see that it tends to stack up like a coil of rope if you don’t spread it quickly. When it came to Pollock’s drip technique, the instability could result in paint fibers forming pigtail like curls as it poured from the can. Before the study, it was believed that the curved lines in Pollock’s paintings were a result of this instability. The new research proved the opposite. Roberto Zenit of the National Autonomous University of Mexico found Pollock moved his hand at an adequately high speed and at an adequately short height so that coiling could not occur.

While the scientific study based on physics may not be of interest to all artists, Zenit believes the research team’s findings will be an effective means in authenticating Pollock’s works. For curators and art appraisers, this knowledge can help determine if a painting with too many tight curls is in fact not a Pollock. Zenit believes the work could also help inform other settings in which other viscous fluids are stretched into thread-like fibers such as during the manufacturing of fiber optics.

The study highlights the artist as having painstakingly developed a technique that used the concept of fluid dynamics so that the paint would hit the canvas exactly as he wanted it to. Pollock’s skill at wielding the fluids in his own way resulted in textures that became his trademark. Whether he knew it or not, by creating a technique that avoided a classic fluid mechanical instability, Jackson Pollock had an innate understanding of physics.

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