Art & Design


Continuing on our look at creativity, it's a classic case - our next case - a classic case of worlds colliding. Welcome to the lonely intersection of physics and painting. At one corner is Jackson Pollock, an American painter who pioneered the expressionistic drip method, a style that resulted in dramatically abstract paintings. Pollock's messy works repulsed as many people as they attracted - excuse me.

At the opposite corner are fractals. These are beautiful geometric patterns that sometimes occur at nature's smallest scales. You see them in snowflakes or rough patterns on a coastline. And it was named by a mathematician more than 30 years ago. Fractals have since become an integral tool in modern geometry.

And here to tell us what fractals have to do with paintings of Jackson Pollock is Richard Taylor, a physicist who wanted to be a painter, and then a painter who couldn't stay out of the lab. Welcome to the program, Dr. Taylor.

Dr. RICHARD P. TAYLOR (Physics, University of Canterbury): Thank you very much. I'm glad to be on the show.

FLATOW: And you describe how you're torn between two worlds.

Dr. TAYLOR: That's right. It's always been sort of a dilemma for me. I got a degree in art and also went on and had a scientific career, and always wondered how I could combine those two careers. Studying patterns seems to be the answer to that. You know, artists are studying things and so are scientists, and so it seems to be a shared region, and of course art works are a very exciting example of that.

FLATOW: And you published a paper years ago talking about your works studying Jackson Pollock's paintings.

Dr. TAYLOR: Right.

FLATOW: And his technique and the way he did conforms very much to fractal geometry.

Dr. TAYLOR: That's right. I mean the way that I got into this was studying, actually, Jackson Pollock. And time again, you know, there's all these references to his work being organic or looking natural, and even Pollock said you know, my concerns are with the rhythms of nature. So there's all these connections and hints that, you know, that these complex patterns that he was painting were linked to nature. And so I felt perhaps the answer is that they have these natural fractals embedded in the canvas and that's the secret of Jackson Pollock.

FLATOW: And you were able to prove that?

Dr. TAYLOR: Yes. You - you know, we proposed this idea that there's actually two sets of patterns in a Jackson Pollock painting. The ones on the larger scales, which are created by his motions as he walked around the canvas, and then there's the others at finer scales, which were actually cause by the splatters of paint.

And so there's actually two distinct types of patterns, and we proposed that, you know, that these are fractal patterns. And you can scan an image of the painting into a computer and do some number crunching where the computer looks at patterns at different magnifications, and that those results are consistent with Pollock painting fractals.

FLATOW: And you pretty much say that there are fractals all over nature just like there are in the paintings.

Dr. TAYLOR: That's right. So, you know, the word fractal appears a little mysterious and frightening to people, but it's something that we actually, you know, experience everyday. You know, common examples are trees, clouds in the sky, mountains, rivers; they're incredibly prevalent around us. And that's where my main research is that, given that on our daily basis throughout our lives we're exposed to this pattern, do we like those patterns? And, you know, further than do we like them, does it have a positive impact on us? And so our sort of research is actually chasing this basic area idea of can you use fractals patterns to actually reduce people's stress levels.

And, you know, then can you work with artists and architects - if you can work out the type of fractals that really have this good impact on you, can you talk to architects and artists and work about ways that they can then take that information and take those patterns and put them to their artwork so that people get exposed to them.

(Unintelligible) question because in the states today, United States' society wastes $300 billion a year on stress-related illness. So if can work to kind of improve that situation, you know, we're doing everybody a huge favor.

FLATOW: I certainly agree with you. You think that in the case of Jackson Pollock, and I would imagine other painters, that there are such a signature that they leave behind in their fractal geometry that you can actually use these as sort of fingerprints…

Dr. TAYLOR: That's right.

FLATOW: …and you can identify the author of the painter of the painting.

Dr. TAYLOR: Yes, that's right. So Jackson Pollock is attracting a lot of attention recently, but this idea is being pursued by a number of quite high-profile groups around the world, investigating very different types of artworks. There's a big group in Holland that is looking at the European modern master's, painters like Monet. And then there's people in the States who are looking at early Chinese drawings and so - and they've all published these papers showing that you can in fact use fractal analysis to distinguish between different artists.

And so that's going to be a very useful tool in the future, you know, the idea of scientific pattern analysis being used to distinguish between different paintings. And then you take that information and you combine it with all the other information, such as historical evidence, the visual inspection by, you know, what they call the connoisseurs' materials analysis. And so if you throw all of that information together, hopefully, then, that will help you to distinguish between paintings by different artists.

FLATOW: And in fact you were instrumental in identifying some newly found Jackson Pollock paintings and trying to identify whether there were real Pollock's or someone else's design.

Dr. TAYLOR: There are number of - there are two groups that are actually worked on Pollock paintings and have shown that they can distinguish between those paintings. And like I say, you know, the important thing is for, you know, a group of people to actually get together and reach a consensus and - you know, that really is a fascinating insight between scientists and artists.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Gary in Little Rock. Hi, Gary.

GARY (Caller): Hello. Good afternoon. Dr. Taylor…

Dr. TAYLOR: Yes, Gary.

GARY: I'm wanting to - a sculpture I made. I'm wanting to decompose that into its fractal components. Can you tell me of any Web sites or anything I can go to, any computer software programs or anything that might help me do that?

Dr. TAYLOR: That's right. What - the most important thing, because fractals are about zooming at high magnifications, that you need to get a very, very high-quality photograph image, first of all, is your first challenge.

GARY: Yeah, some of them were. Yeah.

Dr. TAYLOR: Software packages available on the Internet that you can actually download, and that will give you an initial indication of…

GARY: Well, I have a computer program that will produce fractals and - but it doesn't help me at all in how do I take something that I've built, created or whatever, and then decompose it into its fractal components.

Dr. TAYLOR: Yes, so there are software packages out there that will actually do that for you on the…

FLATOW: Can you name a few?

Dr. TAYLOR: Oh, sure, yes, so there's one called Benoit. There's another one even Adobe PhotoShop sometimes have a plug-in.

GARY: Adobe Photoshop and Benoit?

Dr. TAYLOR: Yeah. That's named after Benoit Mandelbrot, who introduced it.

GARY: Right. Well, I heard you say fractals are everywhere, and I remember I read a book, “Fractals Everywhere,” several years ago. I think it was by Mandelbrot.

Dr. TAYLOR: Yeah, I mean it really is a fascinating subject because it spans the whole of society, from the arts and the science and the humanities; and you can see fractals, you know, they're incredibly prevalent.

FLATOW: When you created a - or actually scanned any of these photographs, and especially or the paintings, and let's talk about some of theses paintings. Can you actually pick up the technique using fractals? Can you identify not just from what's on the painting but by the technique that was used?

Dr. TAYLOR: You know, so a lot of it has to be combined with visual inspection, but let's take another example. There's a scientist called Richard Voss who studies Chinese paintings, and he actually looks at the brush strokes created by the artist and sees a change through the years of going from very sort of expressive to very simplistic brush strokes.

So, you know, you can definitely learn not just about the patterns but, you know, start to step back and try learn new information about the way that the artist actually created the painting. And that's as much, you know, a big part of studying art is actually studying the artworks, it's the artistic process that led to the artwork itself. So yeah, you can definitely work backwards, and that's the interesting thing from a scientist. Because, you know, we're not just looking at these things as sort of abstract patterns, the patterns are a signature of the process that created them. What we're interested in, you know, for example with Jackson Pollock, as to whether he had a particular type of human physiology which allowed him to create those patterns.

FLATOW: Talking with Richard Taylor on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News about fractals and in this case Jackson Pollock. Are you saying, that if I understood you correctly, that he had a certain kind of physiology, the makeup of his body allowed him to stand in a certain way to drop - use gravity to drop these drippings that he did all on the canvas.

Dr. TAYLOR: That's right. So throughout the ‘90s, you know, we talked about fractals appearing in nature, but throughout the ‘90s, there was a huge explosion of study of fractals inside many of our structures inside us, for example, the lungs are fractal; but also processes this inside us, particularly ones that are automatic, that we're not consciously controlling, are being shown to have fractal characteristics to them.

And one of them is the human balance, you know, when you move yourself off balance and you're swaying backwards and forwards, those sways have big sways and smaller sways and smaller sways inside them. And scientists have studied those - not me, but other scientists - and shown that the way that we balance ourselves is actually a fractal motion.

So one interesting preposition, you know, given that Pollock was so dynamic is perhaps, no, not just Pollock, but perhaps, you know, increasingly we can explain different artists to deal with the way that they moved their, you know, hands even with conventional brush strokes, maybe you can learn quite a lot about, you know, the artist's physiology and if they had any sort of pathological conditions by looking at the patterns that they actually created.

FLATOW: Well, let me see if we can get a phone call in. It's 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Robert in San Bernardino. Hi, Robert.

ROBERT (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there.

ROBERT: Greetings to all. This is very interesting. I am enjoying this immensely. My comments - I called earlier. But regarding fractals, it seems to me that fractals are so pervasive, you know, my concept of it is that if you look at a mountain range and then take a piece of rock from that mountain range, you know, from the macro to the micro…

Dr. TAYLOR: Yeah.

ROBERT: …the repetitions of the form or the same.

Dr. TAYLOR: Right.

ROBERT: And it seems to me that in the creative process - and by the way I'm a art - I was an art history major in college and I considered myself to be one that could not draw a straight line.

Dr. TAYLOR: Right.

ROBERT: But I - through my studies and a particular book that I read many years ago that I still use, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards, helped me to overcome some of the difficulties I had in my creative process.

FLATOW: Robert, do you have a question? Because I'm running out of time.

ROBERT: Okay, anybody hear of the concepts of artist manke(ph)? And what I'm trying to do as far as this the contest is associate or connect my sketches with some of my central dogmas of relativistic quantum field theory any comments…

FLATOW: I had to cut him off because we're running - any comment, quickly, Dr. Taylor?

Dr. TAYLOR: I mean this is not the first time this has come up, and there's a lot of discussion about quantum philosophy and whether you can reflect that in art works and things. I think that's a very fertile area. And I'd say to him well, go for it and definitely explain it and try to explore that area.

FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us. And good luck in your fractal and in your art side and your science side.

Dr. TAYLOR: Thank you very much. I've enjoyed it.

FLATOW: Have a great holiday.

Dr. TAYLOR: Thank you.

FLATOW: Richard Taylor is professor of physics at University of Canterbury in New Zealand, and associate professor of physics at University of Oregon in Eugene. We want to thank him for staying up late or early, depending on how you figure that in New Zealand.

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Have a great weekend. If you're celebrating Hanukkah, have a happy Hanukkah to you. We'll see you next week.

I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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