Supercool Art: Drawing with Liquid Nitrogen in Provincetown


Tufts University School of Medicine

Photos by Charlie Rosenberg/
Videos by Laura Wong /

Art and science: separate and distinct

Our society in general and academia especially has segregated art and science. Increasing specialization had made it difficult and seemingly undesirable for faculty to focus on disparate areas. This was not always so. In the 19th century, Alexander Borodin was a chemist and composer, and Thomas Huxley worked as a biologist and humanist. Later, Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell were what we would consider polymaths. And yet, despite the contributions of these notable men, the late 20th and early 21st centuries appear to have encouraged specialization and academic isolation. No doubt there are institutional reasons why this is so, but lately I have begun to ponder why I – a man who has a strong passion for science and art – has only recently sought to combine the two. Furthermore, I have begun to ponder the reciprocal nature of art and science.

I have always been interested and encouraged in art and science, but I have not always recognized how the two could benefit and inform one another. In the mid-1980’s I was elected a junior fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows to work on science and art. During that time, I developed a novel laser-mediated technique for the destruction of specific proteins in cells to address their cellular function 1. This approach, called CALI (Chromophore-Assisted Light Inactivation), has been used by my lab and others to understand the molecular mechanisms of embryonic and neural development as well as cancer invasion 2. As a junior fellow, I was concurrently provided with an art studio where I painted at night and where I generated artwork resulting in two solo exhibitions. I also had the privilege then of studying drawing with the sculptor Will Riemann, who remains my mentor today. Although in the decades that followed I continued to make art and to practice science, I deliberately kept the two disciplines in separate silos. Art was art and science was science. I’m not sure why I did this, but perhaps I felt using my scientific knowledge would trivialize my efforts in visual art and make the latter somehow less pure. Perhaps I was keenly aware that scientists who are not completely driven in their areas of focus are not taken seriously, and that artists who come from other career paths are thought dilettantes or worse, hobbyists.

If I am not completely positive why I kept my twin passions separate for so long, I’m equally unclear about exactly when this changed. I do know, however, that at a certain point, I realized there were academics and others involved in cross-disciplinary thinking. I began to wonder if it was possible for me to combine my interest in art and my work as a scientist. Around the same time, I began to seek out venues where I might somehow combine the two. That is how I found myself last summer at the Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC) in Provincetown, MA. I had a feeling I might find kindred souls at the FAWC, but what I didn’t count on was how much the history of the Center and the town where it was located would teach me about interdisciplinary work and how art itself has always been bound up with other fields.

Provincetown: A history of interdisciplinary practice and a model of bringing art and science together

In the summer of 2013 I attended a workshop on Discovering Drawing led by Paul Stopforth at the Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC) in Provincetown. The FAWC has been a haven of interdisciplinary thought and action since its inception in 1968; it was founded by visual artists Robert Motherwell, Jack Tworkov and Fritz Bultman as well as writers such as the poet Stanley Kunitz among others 3. These founders believed in the power of interaction between fields. In addition to being one of the great painters of the New York School, a term he coined, Motherwell had attended graduate school in philosophy and loved literature.

The interdisciplinary spirit imbued by these founders is still alive here at this art colony. While focused on developing emerging artists within their disciplines, the interaction between FAWC teachers (i.e. established artists) and students is fostered and promoted between disciplines. At FAWC summer workshops bring together visual artists and writers, and attendees participate in evening poetry readings, visual art presentations and panel discussions. In addition to the support of Stopforth and my fellow attendees, discussions with poets and printmakers from concurrent workshops impacted my work there. The Discovering Drawing workshop that I attended was designed to push students towards a diverse definition of drawing.

The FAWC and Provincetown have a long history of appreciating such diversity making art. Provincetown holds a special place in the history of art as an artist colony throughout the 20th century but especially during the birth of abstract expressionism (Ab Ex) in the late 1940s and 1950s 4. This style of painting also called the New York School focuses on process and not product in which dynamic push and pull on the canvas is the predominant objective and indeed the subject of the painting 5. Its proponents included Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Adolph Gottlieb, Willem de Kooning, William Baziotes, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, as well as FAWC founders Bultman, Tworkov and Motherwell 6. They all summered in Provincetown and some like Hofmann, Motherwell, Bultman and Tworkov were an integral part of the art colony yearly 7. Hofmann for example founded his School of Fine Arts here, which influenced many artists including Krasner, Bultman and Frankenthaler 8.

While many of the Ab Ex artists were influenced by Europe (early Pollock, Gorky and de Kooning works are in the style of Picasso-like synthetic cubism 9), it was the freedom of post-war New York and Provincetown (during summers) that provided the environment for creative courage. In his seminal book The Triumph of American Painting, Sandler argued convincingly that Ab Ex was fostered by a sense of community in New York; people showed at the same galleries (e.g. Art of this Century, Koontz, Egan, Parsons Galleries), listened to formal discussions and lectures at the Eighth Street Club, and engaged in informal chats at the Cedar Street Tavern 10. I think it important to point out that for many of these artists the summers in Provincetown were also critical opportunities to develop a community and define a group ethos. Gottlieb said “When you are a young artist, Provincetown is the place to be . . . ” 11. While Motherwell stated, “New York and Provincetown, in a way that no outsider can understand, freed us both in our different manner. In both places there is the personnel and options that make it possible to be oneself without isolation of the sense of a vacuum.” 12 In Provincetown artists shared living and studio space; lectures on contemporary art were given (by Hofmann, Gottlieb, Bultman and others 18, including Motherwell’s talk at Forum 49 that introduced the term “New York School” 13. The comingling of artists in the summer air provided an environment that fostered shared innovation.

The same is true in science. Within my general field of molecular biology I have found how important it is to commune at places like Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories and Woods Hole Marine Biological Labs. Summer courses and lectures provide interface between scientists who work in different areas and sometimes find common ground in formal talks but more often make connections as they linger over dinner or at the beach. This informal atmosphere helps free creativity to exploit the common ground that arises. Matt Meselson (one of my teachers and an eventual colleague) and Frank Stahl met at Woods Hole and within a few years would together perform what molecular biologist John Cairns called “the most elegant experiment in biology”, which showed how DNA replicates 14. Summers at Cold Spring Harbor were critical for the founding of molecular biology. James Watson, of double helix fame, once said of Cold Spring Harbor: “I think during the summers well it’s the most interesting place in the world, if you’re interested in biology” 15. My own work was influenced by my attendance as a student and lecturer at these summer havens. For example, I first publicly presented the CALI innovation described above as a student at the Neural Development course at Cold Spring Harbor in 1985 when this technology was only an idea and a full three years before its publication.

I speculate the same sense of belonging, camaraderie, and even competition that benefit scientists at sites like Cold Spring Harbor benefit artists in places like the MacDowell Colony, Monhegan Island and especially Provincetown. I know artists in these places share ideas. Motherwell recalls his first visit to Provincetown in 1942 and speaks to the influence of the surrealist artist Max Ernst on him and others:

“Before Ernst was removed, I remember watching him in his studio, making automatic paintings on the floor, with a paint bucket wired six feet from the ceiling with a small hole in the bottom dripping black paint in the canvas beneath, in splattered arcs, varying according to how widely and in what direction he swung the paint bucket hanging on its wire, a procedure far more limited mechanically in its rhythmic possibilities than Jackson Pollock’s dance drips of the same period.” 16

Ab Ex artists emphasized novel ways of applying paint to create the dynamism that was at this movement’s core. Motherwell, Tworkov and others used the automatic painting of Ernst and Matta to tap into the subconscious, an integral strategy for Ab Ex. Rothko was an early user of acrylic resins. Helen Frankenthaler (once married to Motherwell and a frequent Provincetown visitor) would apply poured paint in wide arcs on unprimed canvas to achieve her “stain paintings” 17. Most famously, Jackson Pollock would drip paint to create action paintings reworking over any area of the canvas that looked too representational. Thus, novel ways of making marks and dynamic patterns with novel material provided the Ab Ex artists with diverse abstract images never before seen.

Cryoart: An experiment in mark making

The FAWC workshop that I attended focused on making experimental marks on paper that went beyond traditional drawing media. Motherwell did some of his finest work in his studio at the Day’s Lumberyard, which is now the site of the FAWC 18. So it is not surprising that my thoughts when I attended this workshop would be imbued with his spirit; I sought to couple this with my knowledge of science to make new marks. Prior to my arrival, I came up with the idea of drawing on paper submerged in liquid nitrogen, nitrogen gas cooled to -196 degrees Celsius (-321 degrees F) such that it liquefies. Liquid nitrogen is used as a cryogen to achieve very low temperatures used in superconductivity or to cool electronics. Dermatologists use it to freeze off warts. In my lab it is used to rapidly freeze cells and thus suspend their metabolism for their long-term storage. I thought combining liquid nitrogen with charcoal or paint might generate novel marks on the paper and provide a new way to generate a work of art. To my knowledge this had not been done before and could take advantage of my scientific insight and artist’s eye. The following is a description of the “experiments” performed to develop this approach and written as I would write up a set of scientific experiments in a lab notebook.


In developing this idea of “Cryoart” I began to use my scientific background and knowledge that is less accessible (or at least less intuitive) to most artists. Two physical properties come to mind when using liquid nitrogen. It is a liquid and it is very cold. As such this is a liquid into which paint and powder can disperse, but this medium does not wet the paper to permit diffusion as water would. Also, the extreme cold changes the physical properties of both paint (such as acrylic in water) and the paper itself by rapid freezing followed by rapid warming back to room temperature. These changes might influence the interaction of paint with paper dynamically in unusual ways; the pattern of marks may leave a visual record of these interactions.

Aim:  To investigate the feasibility of using liquid nitrogen with drawing and painting media to create interesting marks on paper.

Preliminary Data

I performed a few quick experiments in my office at Tufts University School of Medicine. I prepared a Dewar flask (a large thermos) filled with liquid nitrogen and had a few art media at hand: charcoal powder, charcoal stick, black magic marker, and color pencils. I wore latex gloves like those in the doctor’s office to protect my hands from the extreme cold. Liquid nitrogen can remove warts in small amounts and shatter tissue in the amounts I was using.

I poured the liquid nitrogen on small (8” x 11”) sheets of Fabriano paper in a metal box to contain the cryogen. The liquid nitrogen bubbled and churned quickly freezing the paper and surrounding air. This generated a wave of condensed water and carbon dioxide and looked like a dense fog, similar to the effect one see’s dropping dry ice (a more familiar coolant at a mere -78 degrees Celsius) in water. There were crackling sounds from the extreme cold contracting the metal of the box. As I poured charcoal powder into the fog, this mixture spattered and churned pushing around the charcoal. Once the paper had warmed and the fog cleared, the experiment appeared a success and had indeed made interesting patterns as predicted. However, these patterns were lost as I lifted the paper, because there was nothing that affixed the charcoal to the paper; there was only a faint halo of the interactions.

Next I started drawing on a second sheet that was bubbling with liquid nitrogen. I could feel the extreme cold through the gloves; the gloves immediately became crisp and rigid but still protected my drawing hand from direct contact with the cryogen. I used charcoal stick that was remarkably unaffected in the line made: the liquid did not wash away the line and freezing the paper and the charcoal did not affect its ability to make a mark. In contrast, the black marker froze on contact, and the ink could not disperse onto the paper. Also, color pencils left only a faint trace, perhaps due to the freezing of the slight humidity of the paper; it was akin to trying to write on ice. The pigment of color pencils contains wax and when ultra-chilled, the wax cannot “melt” by friction as one draws the point across the frozen and slippery surface of the super-cooled paper.

What did I learn from these preliminary experiments?  Charcoal dust made an interesting pattern, but I needed to add glue and water to retain the pattern. The water might change the interaction, but I needed to use it. Second, the drawing I made with a charcoal stick looked similar to an ordinary drawing, but perhaps because I was drawing while the liquid nitrogen was bubbling and as I contemplated losing my hand, there seems to be an additional dynamic psychic energy to the lines. Third, using applied media by pen or color pencil wasn’t effective. Perhaps applying color as water-diluted acrylic is the way to go. In future I would also use larger paper so that there would be areas with and without the cryogen. Finally, while liquid nitrogen itself is likely safe, it does create aerosols from the media used that when inhaled or exposed to eyes may be hazardous so proper protection is recommended.

Liquid nitrogen experiments at FAWC

I drove from my lab in Boston to Provincetown on a hot August day with a large Dewar flask containing 4 liters of liquid nitrogen; I hoped it wouldn’t explode in my car. There was no explosion, but by the time I was ready to try Cryoart on the first day of the workshop, I only had 1 liter or so left. Despite the amazing insulation properties of the vacuum enclosed mirrored glass of the Dewar, most of the liquid nitrogen had evaporated. Before I began, I asked for permission from my classmates; I made it clear what liquid nitrogen was and the limited danger it might present (“No, It’s not laughing gas”).

Materials and Methods

I placed a sheet of 22” X 30” Arches watercolor paper in a large tray normally used for developing large photographs. I elected to use my best paper because it is tough and textured and might give interesting flow patterns compared to smooth paper. I prepared three media for these experiments. The first medium was charcoal powder mixed with Elmer’s glue and water. This was a simple medium and ancient; charcoal residue from fire pits may have been humankind’s first drawing tool (albeit without Elmer’s glue). As charcoal powder does not dissolve but instead forms a slurry, I hoped that would give texture as well as interesting flow patterns and the glue would fix these patterns onto the paper. Second, I used sumi ink hand-ground onto an ink stone. This is a very traditional Asian medium, and given my Asian-American roots, I like using it. Its suspended blackness would vary by dilution and flow would perhaps create interesting patterns of gray scale. Third, I used vermillion (bright orange red) acrylic paint in water. This would provide bright color and the plastic nature of the acrylic might respond differently to super-cooling. The color was chosen again based on my Asian roots. Vermillion ink is used in the chop stamps that traditional Chinese artists use for their signature on brush paintings.

The plan was to pour one medium and liquid nitrogen onto the paper and to let them collide permitting the action of super-cooling, flow and rapid rewarming to make magic (see videos). While the artist’s hand influences the pattern by the dynamic action of how the medium is applied (e.g. diagonal vs. vertical, dripped vs. poured, fast vs. slow), there is a high degree of fortuitous accident to exploit.

The experiment itself is quite dramatic: the rise of fog and the bubbling and churning I had come to expect from the preliminary experiments. Also, the creaking from the tray was similar but louder perhaps due to the freezing and contraction of the plastic being more severe than the small stainless steel tray. I was perhaps fortunate that the large plastic tray did not shatter. What was entirely unanticipated were the effects due to the presence of liquid water. While I expected the churning and fog to increase (like putting dry ice in water), there were mini explosions of popping and crackling that sprayed interesting patterns that looked like fireworks on the paper. This was due to drops of water-based media freezing around liquid nitrogen that would explode when liquid rapidly evaporated to gaseous nitrogen, simultaneously shattering and propelling the frozen pigment shell in many directions.



The three media gave different patterns outlined below.

1. Charcoal powder in water with Elmer’s glue:

This mixture partitioned into a thick black paste and a thin particulate suspension and these two phases responded differently to the liquid nitrogen. The paste settled but created sharp spikes reflective of the exploding frozen pellets, while the suspension flowed with the liquid nitrogen forming ghostly veils. This was the most successful of the three experiments and produced great patterns and textures (Figure 1). The composition is dynamic and the diversity of marks extraordinary. In addition to long explosive streaks, there are areas of diffusive flow and dense layered blackness like coal deposits. I see mark combinations on this page that I can’t think of how to achieve otherwise and I saw no need for further working of the paper.
Figure 1

2. Hand ground Sumi ink:

As the liquid ink freezes it encases liquid nitrogen and when nitrogen evaporates, the frozen black beads exploded with lots of crackle and popping. However, I found the initial pattern generated to be less interesting than the charcoal powder work because it lacked the layered effects and perhaps one could achieve the same effects by splattering without liquid nitrogen. I then went back into the paper and added more liquid nitrogen and began a drawing of a clay figure; I used a charcoal stick. I went on to use this drawing as a template for a collage work applying chemicals representing elements as media such as copper wire, crushed chalk and cobalt blue paint (Figure 2).
Figure 2

3. Vermillion acrylic paint in water:

This provided a spectacular sound and light show and gave a remarkable explosion of orangey redness. The pattern shows a more elongated splatter than the other two perhaps due to the elastic properties of acrylic. I used this work for the background of a collage combining it with figure cutouts derived from my old calligraphy studies (Figure 3). The completed work illustrates my personal thoughts on the loss of culture and values in contemporary China as well as my own loss growing up and alienating myself from my cultural roots.
Figure 3


The conclusions of the experiment support the Aim. Liquid nitrogen does provide a novel way to make interesting marks and the use of it bears further investigation. I’m following this up by developing a series of similar drawings by combining liquid nitrogen with different chemicals beyond traditional pigment. I have begun as series using chemical elements as art media (see, for example silver chloride precipitating out as a silver rain through the cryogen leaving its trace on the paper below. These studies take advantage of my knowledge of chemical reactions, but the primary purpose remains to create an interesting work of art.

What to learn and where to go from here

This was a fun and exciting set of experiments to bring to FAWC where so much innovation and collaboration in the arts has occurred through the decades. Places like FAWC motivate the entire community to have the courage to strive for innovation. My experiments were welcomed, and feedback and suggestions from Stopforth and my fellow attendees was encouraging. While not intentional, in retrospect, it is clear that my experiments were influenced by Ab Ex art. The application of paint and ink evokes Frankenthaler’s pouring technique with the added dynamism from the action of the liquid nitrogen. The drawing into liquid nitrogen has aspects of the automatic drawings of Matta and Ernst that influenced Motherwell, Tworkov and others.

The juxtaposition of my work with that of the Ab Ex artists in no way should suggest anything about the importance of the current work or novelty of combining art and science. Hans Hofmann was influenced by his study of science 19 and his paintings have a clear experimental design aspect. Instead, this study simply describes how a trained scientist inspired by these groundbreaking artists thinks about an art problem: making interesting art using new material. It also illustrates how science informs art, generating a new way to apply pigment by taking advantage of extraordinary physical properties not accessible to prior generations of artists. While I do not expect liquid nitrogen to be added to the artist’s toolbox, I believe it shows what science can bring to art. It is exemplary of the interdisciplinary spirit of the FAWC to see what happens when two fields interact. I would like to think that Bultman, Motherwell and Tworkov would have been pleased.

When I started this project, I thought of it as interdisciplinary; I thought I had applied techniques from one field and transferred it to another. However, upon reflection, I realize making art with liquid nitrogen is really transdisciplinary (first coined by Piaget 20), stressing the unity of knowledge and inquiry and transcending disciplines. These drawings necessitated a scientific knowledge of how art media would interact with paper in a super cooled and liquid environment, but they also required an artistic eye to manipulate the media to generate interesting marks. Many great minds have transcended disciplines (the medical missionary and theologian Albert Schweitzer 21 was an exceptionally talented organist and physicist Richard Feynman became skilled at figure drawing 22). Indeed, for Schweitzer and Feynman, their transcendence was bidirectional. Schweitzer’s deep spirituality informed his interpretation and championing of Bach’s organ music while his organ recitals provided funding for his missionary work 21. Feynman’s figure drawings show a linear clarity 22 while one of his contributions to physics was to introduce the Feynman diagrams, simple linear drawings that illustrate interaction events in quantum electrodynamics and other complex physical phenomena 23.

The studies presented in this current article indicate that even the less illustrious can contribute beyond our own fields. While this article is focused on how my science informs my art, it has made me think about how my art informs my science. Prior to this project, I would have dismissed the idea. However, now I speculate that despite my efforts to segregate them, there are clear themes and approaches in which how I do visual art has affected my research. My science is very visual and addresses the complexity of protein interactions in cells. When I think about my research, I imagine myself sitting on a protein watching the countless dynamic interactions around me and trying to define order amid the chaos. This is actually how I do art as well; whether I am sketching the complicated actions of a market scene or making the complex marks shown here in the liquid nitrogen drawings, I am trying to create order from complexity.

When historians of science or art write about their respective fields, they tend to emphasize the unique aspects and differences between artists and scientists. The Cryoart developed for the FAWC workshop uses both science and art and shows that for the processes of creating, they are perhaps more similar than different. In my discussions with artists and scientists, I have always found more similarity than difference in their creative processes. Both disciplines require problem solving and experimentation, judgment and editing. For example Henry Geldzahler, who curated the 1969 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970, likened the Ab Ex period to “a group research project the way pure mathematics might be so that advances that are made in the field are advances that become available to everybody who’s working in it.” 24. While the FAWC is a special place conducive to interdisciplinary work, most universities have artists and scientists who could benefit from collaboration. For example, Cooper Union in New York, with its specific strengths in art and engineering, would be an ideal incubator. I hope that this study inspires other artists and scientists to talk and perhaps work together. Such dialog and collaboration could generate new ideas beyond what a single person can. I look forward to the interesting work that would follow.


1. Jay D.G. Selective destruction of protein function by chromophore-assisted laser inactivation. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 85(15):5454-8, 1988.

2. Li W., Stuurman N., Ou, G. Chromophore-assisted laser inactivation in neural development. Neuroscience Bulletin. 28 (4): 333-341, 2012.

3. Ahrens N. PROVINCETOWN: THE ART COLONY A Brief History and Guide. Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 2000.

4. ibid.

5. Sandler I. The Triumph of American Painting. Praeger Publishers, New York, 1970.

6. New York Provincetown a 50s Connection. Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Provincetown MA, 1994.

7. ibid.

8. ibid.

9. Sandler I. The Triumph of American Painting. Praeger Publishers, New York, 1970.

10. ibid pp 211-215.

11. Vevers T, 1994 cited in Carmean EA Coming to Light: Avery, Gottlieb, Rothko: Provincetown Summers 1957-1961. Knoedler. New York. 2002, p 17.

12. Motherwell R. A Collage for Nathan Halper in Nine Parts. (1983) cited in The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell S. Terenzio ed. Oxford University Press, 1992, p 266.

13. Motherwell R. Reflections on Painting Now (1949) cited in Terenzio, 1992 p 65.

14. Judson H.F. The Eighth Day of Creation. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1979, p 188.

15. ibid p 44.

16. Motherwell R., Provincetown and Days Lumber: A Memoir (1978) cited in Terenzio 1992, p 223.

17. de Antonio E , Tuchman M, Albers J Painters Painting: A candid history of modern art. Abbeville Press, New York, 1984, p 77.

18. Motherwell R., Provincetown and Days Lumber: A Memoir (1978) cited in Terenzio 1992, p 223.

19. Seitz W.C. Abstract Expressionist painting in America. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1983, p 4.

20. Nicolescu B., Transdisclipinarity: Theory and Practice. Hampton Press, New York, 2008.

21. Schweitzer A., Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography H. Holt, New York, 1990.

22. Feynman M., The Art of Richard P. Feynman. Routledge Press, London, 1995.

23. Mattuck R. D. A guide to Feynman Diagrams in the Many-Body Problem 2nd Ed, Dover Publications, New York, 1992.

24. de Antonio, p 79.