Some paintings of Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros feature patchy, spotted areas of contrasting color formed by what Siqueiros described as “accidental painting”. Many modern artists use this technique as well. By pouring thin layers of two different colors atop one other, Siqueiros was able to generate seemingly spontaneous patterns like those shown above. In fact, what Siqueiros was using was a density-driven fluid instability! These patterns will only appear when a denser paint is poured atop a lighter one. They’re the result of a Rayleigh-Taylor instability – the same behavior that makes beautiful swirls of cream in coffee and the finger-like protrusions seen in supernovae.
Although a density difference is necessary to generate accidental painting, other factors like the paint layer’s thickness and viscosity affect the final pattern. For those who are mathematically-inclined, this paper has a linear stability analysis that shows how density difference, viscosity, and other factors affect the cell sizes in the pattern. (Image and research credits: S. Zetina et al.; GIF source)