When art is literally a science experiment

So, I’m no materials scientist, but this is [these are?] some cool-looking data:

"Flow Instability" by Regina Valluzzi.

“Flow Instability” by Regina Valluzzi.

That’s right. The above work of abstract art doubles as polymers research—more specifically, “an exploration of the fluid, gel, and paste properties of acrylics and acrylic media.” According to the artist, Regina Valluzzi:

The transparency of acrylic media, combined with a wide variety of viscoelastic properties allows flow phenomena to be frozen in and captured as part of a painting. In “Flow Instability” [shown above], clear tar gel (Golden) was rough mixed with heavy-bodied acrylic color, and then poured onto the canvas in linear patterns. The tar gel tends to form elongated strands as it flows, but strand formation is slow. By moving the container at different rates relative to the strand formation, the flow can be destabilized and broken. Destabilization and flow breaking cause periodic cellular patterns of paint within the clear film when it dries. Curious? Look up flow instability, periodic doubling, bifurcation.

How does Regina know all this? She has a B.S. in Materials Science from MIT and a Ph.D. in Polymer Science from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. After graduating, she ran her own lab at Tufts and published studies like, “Structure and Properties of Silk Hydrogels” in journals like Biomacromolecules.

Before learning about Valluzzi’s work, I didn’t know much about polymer science. If you’re in the same boat, consider this cool history tidbit from Wikipedia to learn how interesting and useful it can be:

The earliest known work with polymers was the rubber industry in pre-Columbian Mexico. The mesoamericans knew how to combine latex of the rubber tree with the juice of the morning glory plant in different proportions to get rubber with different properties for different products, such as bouncing balls, sandals, and rubber bands. … In the 1840s, Friedrich Ludersdorf and Nathaniel Hayward independently discovered that .. vulcanizing natural rubber with sulfur and heat .. strengthened natural rubber and prevented it from melting with heat without losing flexibility. This made practical products such as waterproofed articles possible.

As a professor at Tufts, Regina Valluzzi’s materials science and polymer research equipment included X-ray diffractometers, scanning electron microscopes, and goniometers. Now a full-time artist, Valluzzi’s lab is her studio, where she studies fluid dynamics and complex liquids with canvas and paintbrushes. She divides her artwork into series; my favorite series is “Fluid Dynamics,” wherein “the variety of viscoelastic properties available with acrylics is explored in paint.”

"Ebb and Flow" by Regina Valluzzi.

“Ebb and Flow” by Regina Valluzzi.

Valluzzi’s work is so unique because her medium is her artistic subject. She’s so psyched about acrylics! Seriously:

As a scientist who has dealt with polymer films in a research context, I was amazed at how well-engineered acrylic paint and media formulations have become. Acrylic was introduced as a paint medium roughly 7 decades ago, and became popular roughly 30 years ago. The amount of work that has gone into making these materials do magic is simply amazing — especially when one considers their high compatibility with other latices and with dry media. And they dry clear! Or cloudy if you want them to! Woo hoo!

"Firmament" by Regina Valluzzi.

“Firmament” by Regina Valluzzi.


"Rivulets and Rafts" by Regina Valluzzi.

“Rivulets and Rafts” by Regina Valluzzi. An abstract painting that doubles as a flow study using acrylics and different pigments to trap fluid phenomena in transparent and translucent paint film.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Valluzzi’s artistic process is as scientific as her artistic inspiration. She shares a bit about her experimental approach to painting here:

I know a lot about Polymers and complex liquids, and I have the background to find more information and to understand highly technical details. I can use this framework along with observations of other artists’ work, demonstrations, etc. to make reasonable, workable hypotheses about how different paint formulations work, their likely components, behaviors, etc. Then I design sets of well-documented “experiments,” usually by trying different painting approaches on small panels, to test what can be done with each medium.

"Threads of Water" by Regina Valluzzi.

“Threads of Water” by Regina Valluzzi.

I looked Dr. Valluzzi up on Google Scholar to learn more about her polymers research, and I found that many of her paintings’ captions sound a lot like her scholarly articles. For example, here’s an excerpt from her paper, “Biomaterial films of Bombyx mori silk fibroin with poly(ethylene oxide)“:

Thick silk fibroin films (∼200 µm) were formed from concentrated silk solutions, since thin films (less than 50 µm) were brittle. PEO was selected for blending based on its aqueous solubility and known biocompatibility. By blending PEO with silk fibroin, a unique morphology was observed and could be controlled based on blend composition. Furthermore the PEO phase could be extracted from the films to generate silk with definable porosity and enhanced surface roughness.

And here’s an excerpt from her description of the painting “Coriolis 3”:

Color diffused and swirled into wet liquid media creates complex patterns that resemble fluid instabilities or smoke patterns. As the liquid and gel media dry they develop a glass-like clarity and transparency. … A three dimensional structure for the spiral was created by extruding acrylic paint and heavy gel medium through a pastry bag.  … The balance of paint versus medium controlled the opacity versus transparency of the 3-D structures. Once dry, the raised lines of the three dimensional spiral pattern provided flow barriers.  This helped control the location and movement of more fluid paint and media that were added in subsequent layers.

"Coriolis 3" by Regina Valluzzi.

“Coriolis 3” by Regina Valluzzi.

Regina Valluzzi has a molecular-level understanding of her artistic media. How many other painters can say the same? That’s pretty cool. Yay science!

I often ask myself whether I’m a physical scientist who also paints, or a painter who has studied a bit too much physics and chemistry. … I approach paint texture in terms of it’s viscoelastic properties and color in terms of pigments and their spectra. If you take a cadmium inorganic red and it’s organic substitute, gently tweak them so they look almost identical in indirect daylight, will they behave differently in incandescent light? Sunlight? Late afternoon light?  — Regina Valluzzi

"First Microseconds" by Regina Valluzzi.

“First Microseconds” by Regina Valluzzi. Acrylic on Canvas.

These artworks were shared with the artist’s permission. To see more of Valluzzi’s work, visit her website, The Nerdly Painter.

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