I've Been Working on the Railroad

I should be planning and preparing monumental pictures, but sometimes I come up dry in trying to do this. In the meantime, it’s the middle of autumn, and one wants to record the panoply of light and color which falls on the eye. And on top of that, I’m still a full time commercial artist. Which sometimes means one must do less ambitious work, just to keep some skin in the game.

Some time ago I blundered across this rail yard, barely two miles from our home. It always interested me, but when I’d stop and make sketches, I couldn’t find a composition emerging, like David did from Michelangelo’s block of marble. Hell, not even like a prize emerging from a box of Crackerjack. But a week ago I had some time and some nice weather and decided to bring out a stack of small canvas panels.

The sun wasn’t positioned where I thought it might best serve my purposes, and wouldn’t be for an hour or so, so I decided to chase after the autumn sky:


It is never a waste of time to try painting the sky, unless of course you’re hoping to exchange your work for dollars. But heck, each one of these things yields a bit more understanding of the sky, and that can’t be minimized. By the time I’d gotten this far, the sky was where I wanted for my rail yard.


Anyone who says you can’t paint a rail yard with large brushes on an 11x14” panel is probably wrong. Anybody who says you can’t do any particular thing is probably wrong. But those were the rules of the game i set for myself: large and medium size brushes, a small panel, and train tracks.

I snapped this picture of a man adjusting the track, thinking he’d be beneficial to the picture. I ended up taping this image to my paintbox and copying it in the various incarnations of the painting. For the record, he is called a Switchman. His job is to route each train where it needs to go. Additionally, he can derail the train if he needs to do so. As it happens, this yard is perched on a hill overlooking the city of Norwood. If a train came loose, it had better be derailed, or else it’ll come crashing down on the city.

I snapped this picture of a man adjusting the track, thinking he’d be beneficial to the picture. I ended up taping this image to my paintbox and copying it in the various incarnations of the painting. For the record, he is called a Switchman. His job is to route each train where it needs to go. Additionally, he can derail the train if he needs to do so. As it happens, this yard is perched on a hill overlooking the city of Norwood. If a train came loose, it had better be derailed, or else it’ll come crashing down on the city.

So this was as far as I took the picture on its first day.


A very wise man looked at the second day’s work on this and suggested that it was really two pictures. In one, the focal point was the distant shed. In the other, it was the switch man. That sort of thing seemed both correct and insurmountable. I decided to try again on a fresh panel.


This was a second shot at the motif. I tried my best to preserve some unity, that the picture would be about just one thing, not two. I also stood further away, attempting to flatten space a bit.


And here’s this afternoon’s take. What’s it all prove? Not much. Sketching’s good for you, if it’s balanced with more ambitious work. Maybe the distant trains are a little more believable. I have many plans for this winter. One is to squirrel myself in a corner of the attic for an hour each day and practice painting complicated subjects in oil, from photographs or from sketches like these. Maybe it’ll build a certain facility in my hand, which I couldn’t mind acquiring. Anyway, that was my week in the train yard. All the live-long day.


The search for a motif undoubtedly is like similar activities in all areas of the arts. Where does a composer find a tune, or a writer find a plot? If one wishes to paint outdoor scenes, what do you choose to paint? It is a dreary process. I’ve spent days in my truck, driving around, looking for something that will stimulate me. Birge Harrison wrote that great compositions surround us everywhere we look, and he probably had a point, but I’ve gone through a lot of time and gasoline looking. I call the process scouting. I mean, I literally call it scouting. In the little black book in which I record my business expenses and mileage, time spent looking around for something to paint fits under the category “scouting”. Logic tells us that it’s as important a use of one’s time as stretching canvases, cleaning brushes, or actually painting. But it’s a lonely and frustrating time. It makes me feel unemployed.

I have no sage advice to offer others in how to scout out scenes. In recent years I’ve tried to limit myself to a set number of miles to drive, but I don’t particularly recommend that.


Good locales occasionally drop in your lap. In June 0f 2017 I parked alongside this spillway, which I’d passed hundreds of times for several years. I ended up spending most of the summer there, working on two versions of the same scene.

More usually, you wander around, make sketches, think about it all. I took a still life class taught by Richard Luschek a few years ago, and his procedure was to accumulate a collection of objects — glasses, statuary, fabric, knickknacks and the like. Luschek had his students grab a few objects, study them for a while, and then wander off by themselves, without the objects but with a scratch pad. In this fashion, you construct a picture from your imagination, making use of the objects you chose.

Similarly, you go out scouting, thinking about what you see, and eventually you assemble all of it into what you hope will be a good picture.

Luschek insists that if something in your still life setup needs to be changed, one changes it physically, rather than maniupulating size, shape or position with a paint brush. The setup is king, as is the screenplay to certain film directors. Similarly, I don’t believe in changing what I see once a motif has been found, except when necessary to change the positions of things. For example, if a line in a scene leads the viewer’s eye outside of the picture, a tree or shrub can be placed there to block the exit.

Okay, I can give you one rule. No matter how lonely a day you have scouting, make a point of coming back with something. I carry a stack of canvas panels. A half-hour spent sketching a scene, any scene, can be very encouraging. The sky is always fun to paint. But pretty much anything will teach you something about what paint will do.


Today there were no clouds and no people. So I pulled alongside a lake and sketched what I saw.

I seldom am able to sell stuff like this except to other painters. But it’s a good way to end a day spent in search of the elusive composition.

The Fine Art of Upstaging

A picture ought to be about something. One of the differences between painting up until the middle of the 19th century and what followed is that pictures, for the most part, ceased being about something literary and became about things purely visual. The subject of, for example, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People to Victory was the triumph of the 1830 revolt against Charles X, or about the triumph of freedom in general.


Liberty told of events and the human condition. Jean Francois Millet, similarly, painted haystacks as a comment on farm life.

millet haystacks.jpeg

But haystacks can be contemplated in other ways. Monet and his colleagues took the subject matter surrounding them and used them as an evocation not of life or the human condition, but of the very act of seeing.


It would be tough to imagine a more dispassionate rumination on haystacks, or of anything else. With the French Impressionists came an exploration not of what we see, but how we see. The change, and the work these people did, are so familiar to us now that it’s easy to overlook what an overhaul this was in how pictures were conceived and executed. Subject matter and its overtones became pretty much irrelevant. Hawthorne famously taught his students that the loveliest motifs were the ugliest ones. He loved sending his pupils to railroad yards. The poetry to be sought wasn’t in what things were but how they appeared on the retina of the eye.

It’s a very different sort of way to conceive pictures, and it’s fallen out of fashion over the past decades. But it’s still a legitimate way of building paintings. I find it very much worth pursuing.


For example, last Saturday I blundered on this scene. There’s nothing in the way of literary content here, no genre subject to explore, although in fact I was standing in a farmer’s market, which could well have offered a human story to tell.

But what interested me here was something else. I made sketches to try and isolate what it was that I wanted to build a picture around:


I was feeling out what intrigued me here, but I was cropping the scene too closely to really see it, and I tried again:


This was it. The zigzag formed from a mound of land, its diagonal descent, and the flat plane surrounding it, framed by three trees, was the story, if you could call it a story.

Anyone who’s painted landscape for any length of time will soon get bored with a horizontal ground plane, parallel to the lower border of the canvas. One searches for some relief from it. And here it was, my zigzag. It, the trees framing it, and the cloudscape above, where what I wished to describe. Not a profound comment on the human condition. Just something that looked cool. I went at it.


Ninety minutes later, my 18x24” canvas was covered. An hour or two, generally, is as long as an effect is going to last, so unless your visual memory is superb, you have to limit your work time each day.

The shadow of passing clouds on the foreground was something I wanted and waited to see, although the shape and the edges of this shadow are somewhat vague. The blue of the distant trees on the left are really unseen on the right, but its lack looks strange; i would have to invent a line of distant trees on the right.

If you’re smart, you’ll learn to love day one. I loved this one. When I was done, I packed up, went home, and left the canvas on the dashboard of my truck to bake in the 88º sunshine of this Indian summer day. That night, the paint had set, and I scraped it all down with a palette knife, to bring about a dry and cooperative surface for the following sessions.

Two days later I returned. Same time of day, roughly the same conditions. My target, again, was the zigzag ground plane. I noodled with the sky some, but had decided that its lines and shapes were what I wanted, so I only made some minor adjustments to values and hues.

Day Two can be very difficult. The visual impression which one rapidly and uncritically recorded must be refined and clarified; otherwise, why go back at all? But the energy of the first lay-in is extraordinarily easy to lose.

As you can see, I did add that distant treeline to the right, and I made an earnest effort to describe the topology of the land whose zigzag I so wanted to describe. But Day Two was disheartening. I didn’t like the ground and wasn’t terribly thrilled with the sky which, after all, was assigned the largest real estate in the canvas.

Autumn effects are fugitive. The scene might look about the same for another day, but that’s about it. The weatherman believed that tomorrow there’d be one more warm sunny day. I could either try to get it then, or stick this thing in the attic, to await another attack in October of 2019.


When the next day came, I had to make a decision: do I chase after my zigzag ground plane, or do I just go after what my eyes saw that day? I chose the latter. My ground plane was sacrificed to the sky before me, which I painted rapidly.

If we’re speaking of the fine art of upstaging, that’s what happened here: the sky, which had been cast as a supporting player to a zigzag land mass, became the star. Like the ingenue in The Wisdom of Eve, my sky took its understudy role, ran with it, and upstaged the ground.

I’m more and more convinced that in order to paint a cloudscape, one must find one point of focus, one finely seen cloud, and let everything else fall out of focus. I believe that this is one of the secrets of a well-painted sky. Clouds are huge, and the eye cannot focus on more than one of them at a time. Nor are all clouds equally crisp to the eye. Usually only one is, usually to be found a few degrees above the horizon. I selected one cloud as the star, the crisply painted one directly above the leftmost tree. I drew it the best I could, and spent the rest of my time finding ways to lose the outlines of the others.

The picture got some nice comments on social media. It’s about as good a sky as I’ve ever managed to paint. But the aging diva it upstaged, my zigzag ground plane, was the casualty.

That’s life.