Forgeries of Jackson Pollock’s iconic, splatter-like paintings are always dripping out into the art world.
But a new scientific analysis of the American artist’s works may let experts to confirm which are real — and which are simply ‘Pollocks’.
Pollock created his most quintessential works not with a brush, but by pouring paint onto canvas from above, weaving filaments of colour into abstract masterpieces.
Experts analysing the physics of Pollock’s technique have shown that the artist had a ‘keen understanding’, if unconscious, of a classic phenomenon in fluid dynamics.
Forgeries of Jackson Pollock’s iconic, splatter-like paintings are always dripping out into the art world. But a new scientific analysis of the American artist’s works may let experts to confirm which are real — and which are simply ‘Pollocks’
The team found that Pollock’s technique seems to intentionally avoid what is known as ‘coiling instability’ — the tendency of a viscous fluid to form curls and coils when poured onto a surface.
‘Like most painters, Jackson Pollock went through a long process of experimentation in order to perfect his technique,’ said paper author and engineer Roberto Zenit of the Brown University in Rhode Island.
‘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 [that] he avoided this coiling instability.’
According to Professor Zenit, Pollock’s technique typically involved pouring paint straight from a can or along a stick onto a canvas lying horizontally on the floor — an artistic approach often referred to as the ‘drip technique’.
However, he explained, this a bit of a ‘misnomer’ in the parlance of fluid mechanics, in which ‘dripping’ means dispensing the fluid in a way that it makes discrete drops.
Pollock largely avoided droplets in favour of unbroken filaments of paint that stretched across his canvas.
To understand exactly how the technique worked, Professor Zenit and colleagues analysed extensive videos of Pollock at work, taking careful measures of how fast he moved and how far from the canvas he poured his paints.
The research team then replicated his technique in the laboratory.
Using the set-up, the team deposited paint using a syringe — mounted at varying heights above a canvas — which they moved at different speeds.
Pollock created his most iconic works not with a brush, but by pouring paint onto canvas from above, weaving filaments of colour into abstract masterpieces
The experiments helped the team to zero in on the most important aspects of what Pollock was doing.
‘We can vary one thing at a time so we can decipher the key elements of the technique,’ Professor Zenit explained.
‘For example, we could vary the height from which the paint is poured and keep the speed constant to see how that changes things.’
The team found that the combination of Pollock’s hand speed, the distance he maintained from the canvas and the viscosity of his paint all seem to be aimed at avoiding coiling instability.
Anyone who’s ever poured a viscous fluid — such as honey onto toast — has likely seen some coiling instability, Professor Zenit noted.
When a small amount of a viscous fluid is poured, it tends to stack up like a coil of rope, before eventually oozing across the target surface.
Study senior author Professor Roberto Zenit, of Brown University in the United States, said: ‘Like most painters, Jackson Pollock went through a long process of experimentation in order to perfect his technique’
In the context of Pollock’s technique, Professor Zenit explained that the instability can result in paint filaments making pigtail-like curls when poured from the can.
Previous research had concluded that that the curved lines in Pollock’s paintings were a result of this instability — but the new study shows the opposite.
‘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,’ Professor Zenit said.
He says the findings could be ‘useful’ in authenticating Pollock’s works, with too many tight curls suggesting that a drip-style painting is not a Pollock.
The findings could also inform other settings in which viscous fluids are stretched into filaments — such as the manufacture of fibre optics.
Yet Professor Zenit said that his main interest in the work is that it is simply a ‘fascinating’ way to explore interesting questions in fluid mechanics.
‘I consider myself to be a fluid mechanics messenger,’ he said.
‘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.’
The full findings of the study were published in the journal PLOS One.