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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.