The Drawings & Paintings of Richard Feynman: Art Expresses a Dramatic “Feeling of Awe”

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I first encoun­tered bon­go-play­ing physi­cist Richard Feyn­man in a col­lege com­po­si­tion class geared toward sci­ence majors. I was not, mind you, a sci­ence major, but a dis­or­ga­nized sopho­more who reg­is­tered late and grabbed the last avail­able seat in a required writ­ing course. Skep­ti­cal, I thumbed through the read­ing in the col­lege book­store. As I browsed Sure­ly You’re Jok­ing, Mr. Feyn­man!—the first of many pop­u­lar mem­oirs released by the affa­ble con­trar­i­an scientist—the human­ist in me perked up. Here was a guy who knew how to write; a the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist who spoke the lan­guage of every­day peo­ple.

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Feyn­man cul­ti­vat­ed his pop­ulist per­sona to appeal to those who might be oth­er­wise turned off by abstract, abstruse sci­en­tif­ic con­cepts. Like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, his name has come to stand for the best exam­ples of pop­u­lar sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It is often through one of Feynman’s acces­si­ble, non-spe­cial­ist books or pre­sen­ta­tions that peo­ple learn of his work with the Man­hat­tan project, his con­tri­bu­tions to quan­tum mechan­ics, and his Nobel Prize. But Feynman’s extracur­ric­u­lar pursuits—from safe-crack­ing to drum­ming to exper­i­ment­ing with LSD—were also gen­uine expres­sions of his idio­syn­crat­ic char­ac­ter, as was anoth­er of his pas­sions for which he is not very well known: art.


Feyn­man took up the pur­suit at the age of 44, and con­tin­ued to draw and paint for the rest of his life, sign­ing his work “Ofey.” Many of his draw­ings dis­play the awk­ward, off-kil­ter per­spec­tive of the begin­ner, and a great many oth­ers look very accom­plished indeed. In an intro­duc­to­ry essay to a pub­lished col­lec­tion of his art­work, Feyn­man describes what moti­vat­ed him to take up this par­tic­u­lar avo­ca­tion:

I want­ed very much to learn to draw, for a rea­son that I kept to myself: I want­ed to con­vey an emo­tion I have about the beau­ty of the world. It’s dif­fi­cult to describe because it’s an emo­tion. It’s anal­o­gous to the feel­ing one has in reli­gion that has to do with a god that con­trols every­thing in the uni­verse: there’s a gen­er­al­i­ty aspect that you feel when you think about how things that appear so dif­fer­ent and behave so dif­fer­ent­ly are all run ‘behind the scenes’ by the same orga­ni­za­tion, the same phys­i­cal laws. It’s an appre­ci­a­tion of the math­e­mat­i­cal beau­ty of nature, of how she works inside; a real­iza­tion that the phe­nom­e­na we see result from the com­plex­i­ty of the inner work­ings between atoms; a feel­ing of how dra­mat­ic and won­der­ful it is. It’s  — of sci­en­tif­ic awe — which I felt could be com­mu­ni­cat­ed through a draw­ing to some­one who had also had that emo­tion. I could remind him, for a moment, of this feel­ing about the glo­ries of the uni­verse.

As you can see above, he took his work seri­ous­ly. Most of his draw­ings con­sist of por­traits and nudes, with the occa­sion­al land­scape or still life. You can see more exten­sive gal­leries of Feynman’s art at Amus­ing­Plan­etMuse­um Syn­di­cate and Brain Pick­ings.


Feynman’s preoccupation—and full immersion—in the rela­tion­ship between the arts and sci­ences marks him as a Renais­sance man in per­haps the purest def­i­n­i­tion of the term: his approach close­ly resem­bles that of Leonar­do da Vin­ci, a like­ness that comes to the fore in the work below, which is either a col­lec­tion of sketch­es doo­dled over with for­mu­lae, or a col­lec­tion of for­mu­lae cov­ered with doo­dles. Either way, it’s a per­fect rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the vision­ary mind of Feyn­man and his regard for ordi­nary lan­guage, peo­ple, and objects—and for “sci­en­tif­ic awe.”

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Physics Cours­es

The Feyn­man Lec­tures on Physics, The Most Pop­u­lar Physics Book Ever Writ­ten, Now Com­plete­ly Online

Richard Feynman’s Let­ter to His Depart­ed Wife: “You, Dead, Are So Much Bet­ter Than Any­one Else Alive” (1946)

Learn How Richard Feyn­man Cracked the Safes with Atom­ic Secrets at Los Alam­os

‘The Char­ac­ter of Phys­i­cal Law’: Richard Feynman’s Leg­endary Course Pre­sent­ed at Cor­nell, 1964

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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