Why can't a four-year old paint a Pollock?

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1. Is abstract art child's play?

Much of abstract art can prompt the bewildered comment; “my child could paint that.”

In the public mind, Jackson Pollock’s work is some of the most divisive and contentious in modern art. Pollock was a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism, believing that art should flow from the unconscious mind.

With its seemingly wild drips, runs and splashes of colour, is Pollock’s work more than just the random throwing of paint? Alastair Sooke visits Tate Modern to see how striking and emotive Pollock can be.

2. Can a child paint a Pollock?

Children love painting and experimenting with colour. Following a short demonstration of Pollock’s most basic techniques, a small group of children are let loose with a variety of paint and tools. They flick, pour and drip paint from brushes and sticks and allow the paint to run over the paper. Pollock’s skills are easily emulated and fun, and their paintings have a colourful, energetic quality.

But Jackson Pollock painted with strong emotion behind his work. He explored entirely new areas of art, and led the way for others to follow.

Does the fact that his technique can be copied by young children diminish his originality?

3. Taking the floor

Although he built on the ideas of many of the other cutting edge artists of his day, such as Picasso and the Surrealists, Pollock’s work appeared to be an abrupt and startling break with many artistic traditions.

He had been trained in the formal skills expected of artists. However, he was influenced by new interest in the unconscious mind and Carl Jung's psychological analysis of dream symbolism. Pollock gradually developed his own methods, departing radically from traditional painting in terms of techniques, materials and outcomes.

Pollock worked on the floor, rather than on a wall, table or easel, so he could move around his sometimes very large canvases of several metres along each side, working from all sides. He flicked paint from paintbrushes, pouring directly from cans, and used sticks, syringes, trowels, and knives.

He tried a variety of different paints, but particularly liked using household paints (alkyd enamels) as they were more fluid than traditional oil paint.

“Most of the paint I use is a liquid, flowing kind of paint. The brushes I use are used more as sticks rather than brushes. The brush doesn’t touch the surface of the canvas, it’s just above."

4. Can an art critic paint a Pollock?

Alastair Sooke visits painter and lecturer Jeffrey Dennis at Chelsea College of Arts in London to find out how to paint like Jackson Pollock.

5. The science behind the squiggles

While Pollock’s work may at first appear to be random or chaotic, scientific laws are visible in some of his paintings which make them appealing to the human eye. He painted rhythmically and intuitively, building up successive layers of intermeshed lines, and there are repeated patterns which appear across his work.

Fractals

Mathematicians have suggested that we are drawn to a Pollock because they contain fractals, which are the underlying codes, ratios and structures found in nature. Although the artist himself did not systematically study these scientific theories, mathematicians have analysed his paintings and found that Pollock appears, intuitively, to have honed his fractal technique over the years as the patterns became more complex.

Coiling

In the summer of 1947, Pollock realised that flicking the fluid paint rapidly would tend to result in straight lines, but allowing it to drip slowly would form elegant curls and curves. These distinctive shapes in a Pollock might appear to be the work of tightly controlled wrist-action, but scientists who study Fluid Dynamics say it is the result of a physical phenomenon (noticed by the artist in his experiments and then exploited in subsequent works) where the paint naturally forms coils as it lands.

6. How to spot a fake?

With Pollock paintings selling for tens of millions of dollars (his Number 5, 1948, sold for £83 million in 2006), art experts have been called upon to make judgements about the authenticity of possible Pollock works. Thousands of copycat canvases have been painted. How can you tell a real Pollock?

The painting

Investigating how the paint was applied and how it dried is the first step in authenticating a Pollock. But imitators were quick to adopt many of Pollock's signature techniques such as dripping and flicking paint. A fake may share these characteristics.

Science

Ageing and analysis of paint pigments have also authenticated disputed works. In 2013, the strange discovery of a polar bear hair under the top layers of paint was a big step towards authenticating a potential Pollock, as the researchers discovered that Pollock owned a polar bear rug.

Ongoing disputes

Teri Horton bought a ‘Jackson Pollock’ painting in the early 1990s but expert opinion is divided as to its authenticity. This was the subject of a 2006 film 'Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?' Likewise, a collection of paintings belonging to fellow abstract painter Mercedes Matter have been declared genuine Pollocks by some experts, but inauthentic by others.

7. Can you spot the Pollock?

Click on the pictures below to reveal whether they were painted by a child, presenter Alastair Sooke, on computer or by Jackson Pollock himself.

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Painted on computer

This painting was made on a computer using painting software.

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Painted by Jackson Pollock

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) 1950, painted by Jackson Pollock. Can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Enamel on Canvas

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Painted by Alastair Sooke

Painted over the course of 20 minutes by Alastair Sooke under the guidance of Pollock expert Jeffrey Dennis at Chelsea College of Art. Acrylic on canvas.

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Painted by a 4 year old child

Painted by Amelia, 4, over the course of 5 minutes. Poster paint on card.