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Art Masterclass - 111

How to Paint Steam Trains in Watercolour with Gerald Green

Although challenging, railway subjects and steam engines in particular offer an appealing source of subject matter for painting. To look convincing they need to be depicted accurately, but for me the real test is doing this without over elaboration, whilst at the same time retaining the freshness and spontaneity in the painting medium.

Below is Sunlight and Steam, watercolour on Arches Not, 640gsm, (33x61cm)
Gerald says: 'My aim here was to capture the power and movement of the subject as it burst from beneath the bridge enveloped in smoke and steam'

For this demonstration below I used a worked example to show how this can be achieved using watercolour. I chose a three-quarter view of a steam engine from the Great Central Railway at Loughborough that had momentarily stopped before backing into the station. I produced it as a studio painting based on a couple of lineside photographs taken on a fairly overcast day.

9F 2-10-0 at Loughborough on The Great Central Railway

Stage One
I began at the front of the engine. I mixed a strong dark from indigo and light red with very little water, matching the mix to the dark tonal value on my sketch, and applied it to the right-hand smoke deflector (these are the elements that resemble ears on the sides of the engine).

I used the same mix for the other areas on the front face of the circular fire box door, painting across the forms where the tonal values of adjacent areas appeared to be the same, and lightening the mix where shown whilst at the same time working around the handles, number plate and front lamp as I went. I prefer not to use masking fluid for these areas as it creates too solid an edge when removed. I continued with the red front buffer plate with a mixture of cadmium scarlet with a little ultramarine blue to reduce its intensity. While that was drying I painted in the entire lower line of wheels as a single shape, beginning at the back of the engine below the tender and working my way forward, adding more water to lighten the shapes of the wheels and painting around the pipes at the front of the engine as I went. I used the same indigo and light red mix but varied the combination of each in turn every time I picked up more paint.

The complexity of these elements makes it difficult to see them all in isolation, so rather than trying to depict each one separately
I concentrated on painting only their general relationships so that the whole area read as a single relatively dark mass, to correspond with my tonal study. I also painted the piston box in a muted green made from raw sienna and lamp black.

Stage Two
Moving on to the upper parts of the engine I used the same muted green, mixed from raw sienna and lamp black, varying the combinations of each colour to depict the tender and boiler whilst leaving areas of white paper along the top of the boiler and cab to match my tonal sketch. Where I wanted to show steam rising above the engine

I first dampened the paper to soften the edges of the adjacent colour patches. Whilst this was drying I continued with the rest of the painting.

Stage Three
I blocked in the general shapes of the building above the bridge using sepia and ultramarine blue for the grey roof and raw sienna and purple lake for the gabled front wall. I also painted in the bridge, cutting around the outline of the engine and leaving hard-edged shapes of white paper for the areas of steam above it. I laid in the grassy foreground area to the right with cadmium lemon and lamp black and the distant coaches with raw sienna and light red plus ultramarine blue for the two-colour sides, painting in the window shapes against the still damp paint. I lastly added the sky with cerulean blue and a little neutral tint when the background buildings were dry, again leaving white paper for the areas of rising steam.

Finished Painting
9F 2-10-0 at Loughborough on The Great Central Railway, watercolour on Arches Not, 640gsm, (28x39cm).

All that remained was to include the foreground rail tracks using combinations of my original colours, trying not to get caught up in the details.

I also decided to darken the sky a little to highlight the steam a little more, and I included a suggestion of some background trees on the right. To complete the painting I added in one or two further touches of drawing with a fine brush to the upper parts of the engine using a warmer dark mix made from burnt sienna and ultramarine blue. Also I used a light grey mixture made from permanent white gouache and neutral tint to refine one or two areas around the wheels and pistons.

Gerald Green

Gerald relinquished his career as an architect to follow his passion for painting. He is represented by a number of commercial galleries in the UK and has exhibited in Europe, USA and China together with a number of the London art societies.
He has been a finalist in several national art competitions. He has undertaken commissions for many national and international clients; his work features in nine books and he has appeared on television and taken part in radio interviews about his work.
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