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Dendritic painting: Creating art with science

In an extraordinary fusion of art and science, researchers have delved into the mesmerizing realm of dendritic painting, a technique that stands at the confluence of creativity and fluid dynamics.

This exploration by the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) was inspired by the captivating live painting performances of Japanese media artist, Akiko Nakayama, who creates stunning visuals by dropping colorful acrylic ink mixed with alcohol onto surfaces coated with acrylic paint, resulting in beautiful, tree-like fractal patterns.

Akiko Nakayama: Painting with physics

Dendritic painting involves ink droplets spread into intricate patterns that can resemble snowflakes or thunderbolts. It’s a complex interplay of physical principles.

Nakayama’s work, which captures the fluid beauty of evolving patterns, provided a perfect case study for OIST’s investigation into the physics that underlie this artistic process.

Reflecting on the collaboration, Nakayama expressed her admiration for scientists who bridge the gap between science and art, highlighting her delight in the collaboration between the artist and the evolving patterns.

“I have a deep admiration for scientists, such as Ukichiro Nakaya and Torahiko Terada, who made remarkable contributions to both science and art,” says Nakayama.

“I was very happy to be contacted by OIST physicist Chan San To, and I’m envious of his ability ‘to dialogue’ with the dendritic patterns, observing how they change shape in response to different approaches. Hearing this secret conversation was delightful,” Nakayama explains.

Artistic and scientific dialogues in dendritic painting

This sentiment is echoed by OIST’s Professor Eliot Fried, who underscores the historical significance of fluid mechanics in painting, referencing artists like David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jackson Pollock.

“Painters have often employed fluid mechanics to craft unique compositions. We have seen it with David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jackson Pollock, and Naoko Tosa, just to name a few. In our laboratory, we reproduce and study artistic techniques, to understand how the characteristics of the fluids influence the final outcome,” says Fried.

The research conducted by OIST focuses on two main forces at play in dendritic painting. First, the phenomenon of surface tension, which allows ink droplets to maintain a spherical shape and spread across the painting surface.

Crafting fractals with surface tension

The Marangoni effect, a key player in this process, arises as alcohol in the ink evaporates, altering the droplet’s surface tension and encouraging fluid to move towards areas of higher tension.

Moreover, the underlying layer of acrylic paint is crucial for the creation of fractal patterns. Dr. Chan from OIST explains that for fractals to form, the paint must decrease in viscosity under stress, akin to how ketchup flows more easily when shaken.

This principle allows the ink droplet to shear the paint layer, creating conditions favorable for the intricate patterns to emerge.

Interestingly, the team also found parallels between the way ink travels in dendritic painting and how liquids move through porous mediums like soil.

Dendritic painting and fluid dynamics

This discovery points to the broader applicability of their findings, suggesting that the principles governing dendritic painting could inform our understanding of fluid dynamics in natural and engineered systems.

Artists interested in exploring dendritic painting have a couple of variables to experiment with to influence their outcomes.

The thickness of the paint layer and the ratio of diluting medium to paint are crucial for achieving desired fractal patterns, with thinner layers and specific dilution ratios leading to more refined fractals.

OIST’s foray into the intersection of art and science is not new. The institute has previously embarked on projects that blend these domains, such as the creation of a mobile sculpture on campus that reflects the principles of Möbius kaleidocycles.

New frontier: Art through the lens of science

Currently, Dr. Chan is developing methods to analyze the complexity of art during its creation, hopeful that these techniques will reveal hidden patterns in the flow of fluids, whether in art or in nature.

Dr. Chan’s enthusiasm for merging science and art highlights a broader vision: that science should not be confined to technological advancement but should also inspire artistic innovation.

This perspective not only enriches our understanding of art but invites artists to delve into the physics of their creations, potentially leading to groundbreaking collaborations and new forms of expression.

Endless possibilities of artistic innovation

In summary, the exploration of dendritic painting by the OIST showcases the mesmerizing intersection of art and science and encourages future collaborations that could redefine the boundaries of creative expression.

By delving into the physical principles underlying this artistic technique, researchers and artists together illuminate the complex beauty of fractal patterns, offering insights and techniques that can enhance both fields.

This partnership highlights the potential of interdisciplinary endeavors to unlock new forms of innovation, inviting artists to experiment with the physics of their craft and scientists to find inspiration in the artistry of the natural world.

Through such collaborations, art and science continue to enrich each other, fostering a deeper understanding of the world around us and the creative potential within us all.

See a video of experiments with acrylic paint fractals here.

More about dendritic painting

As discussed above, dendritic painting is an innovative art technique that produces intricate, branching patterns reminiscent of natural forms such as tree branches, lightning, or river deltas.

This method leverages the physical properties of paint and the surfaces it interacts with to create mesmerizing, organic designs. Artists who practice dendritic painting harness both chance and control to guide the paint into creating these natural, dendritic patterns.

The technique

Materials and Setup

Dendritic painting requires minimal materials, making it accessible to artists of all levels. The essential supplies include two glass plates, oil-based or acrylic paints, and a flat surface. Some artists also use paper or canvas to transfer the dendritic patterns from the glass plates.

Creating Dendritic Patterns

The process begins by applying a thin layer of paint on one glass plate. Then, the second plate is pressed against the first, sandwiching the paint between them. By carefully pulling the plates apart, the paint stretches and creates branching patterns due to the separation of the paint molecules.

Transferring the Pattern

Once the dendritic pattern is formed between the glass plates, artists often transfer it onto paper or canvas. This transfer captures the fleeting, intricate design in a permanent form, allowing it to be refined or incorporated into larger compositions.

Applications and artistic implications

Unique Artworks

Each dendritic painting is unique, offering a one-of-a-kind aesthetic that cannot be precisely replicated. This uniqueness adds value and intrigue to the artwork, drawing interest from collectors and art enthusiasts alike.

Symbolism and Interpretation

The natural, branching patterns of dendritic painting often evoke themes of growth, connection, and the inherent beauty of nature. Artists may use this technique to explore these themes or to invoke a sense of wonder and complexity in their viewers.

Bringing art and science together

Dendritic painting stands out as a fascinating art form that blends the unpredictability of natural processes with the artist’s intention and creativity.

Its simplicity, accessibility, and the beauty of its results make dendritic painting a compelling technique for artists exploring the intersections of art, nature, and science.

Through this innovative approach, artists continue to push the boundaries of what paint can achieve, creating works that captivate and inspire.

The full study was published in the journal PNAS Nexus.


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