From the Windows of a Train

Painting from a berth inside a train can be the most rewarding exercise in seeing. On a train that traversed the length of the North Island, New Zealand and meandered across the Southern Alps of the South Island, I made these sketches. Strangely, the jolting of the train made writing all but impossible but didn’t hinder my painting this dramatic, ever-changing landscape.


North Island and New Zealand’s longest river on whose banks lush plants grow in volcanic soil.

My first experience of painting on a train occurred while I was traveling with a fellow painter in Italy. We were on our way to Firenza (Florence) when we decided to try out our shiny new Cotman Field Boxes. It was such fun! As we painted in our sketchbooks, we noted the staccato rhythm of tall cypress trees and short, squat umbrella pines. The pattern of tall/short was like a musical phrase.


Climbing above the tree line where snow still lingers on the mountain tops of the Southern Alps.

Our sketchbooks were Cheap Joe’s American Journey watercolor journals (9 x 12). On each sheet of the journal we penciled in small, rectangular shapes, three or four on a page. First, we painted skies in each rectangle. Once the first wash was dry, we could add marks that indicated the passing landscape: for example, a village of red roofs, a turquoise lake or olive groves lined up across the hills. Though working quickly, we were essentially doing memory paintings. We’d see a distinctive feature of the landscape and then get the essence of it down on paper.


A valley near Fielding, where sheep run from the sound of the approaching train.

We knew, when painting on a train especially, that we couldn’t try to draw a particular village; instead, we wanted to render the nature of the terrain: the hill country of Tuscany, the flat landscape between Venice and Padua, or Vesuvius looming near Pompeii. Because they were just quick sketches, we didn’t feel inhibited. We didn’t feel the pressure of trying to paint a masterpiece.

The surprise, the first time my fellow painter and I painted on a train, was how well the watercolor sketches turned out. Back home, I not only used the sketches as inspiration for large, studio paintings, but I even matted and sold many of them. Some of the people who bought these sketches were securing a memento of a loved place or a lovely vacation. Photographs are often disappointingly matter-of-fact, whereas a watercolor sketch is expressive, conveying the feeling of a place and the thrill of an adventure.

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