As a youngster in the late 1950s and early 1960s I was always fascinated by the steam locomotives which passed through the Lancashire village where I lived, heading north and south on the London to Edinburgh main line.  In the evenings, on any scrap of paper, I would draw the engines and scenery I had seen.

To some extent my interest still remains and since leaving the commercial art world in 1994 to become a full-time painter, the opportunity to paint the occasional railway scene has been irresistible.

Apart from the preservation societies, the days of steam are now long gone so, where possible, I like to bring back to life extinct railways. In many cases, although the track beds, embankments and cuttings remain; some overgrown, others turned into paths or bridleways so, to some extent, the subject matter is still there.

Preliminary sketches

Most railway paintings are the result of reference material gathered while out on other painting expeditions, or on holiday.

Having found a possible location, I first do some preliminary sketches and also take some photographic reference of the surrounding area; from this, the essence of a scene is started.  The next step back in the studio is to produce a second sketch and bring the whole image together, complete with engines and rolling stock.  Some research is needed at this stage since enthusiasts are very knowledgeable about the whole railway scene so, if visible, they must be authentic.

The sketch below shows one of these second sketches drawn in using a soft pencil, 2B or 4B.  I find tracing paper ideal for this purpose. Shadow areas are indicated simply with the side of the pencil and shortened with a finger, whilst highlights, such as halos on figures, buildings or the reflective rails, are scraped out with a sharp blade, scalpel or putty rubber.  The sketches are quick to produce and the soft pencil on tracing paper gives a dramatic overall effect which I try to convey in the finished painting.

Initial sketch for Winter Shadows, 4 x 6in (10.2 x 15.2cm)

Atmosphere and mood

I am not particularly interested in the ‘nuts and bolts’ aspect of railway paintings; my interest lies in the importance of atmosphere, light and mood.

Painting these finely engineered locomotives with such a loose approach, especially in watercolours, is almost a contradiction.  My aim is always to try to convey in as few brushstrokes as possible the type of engine, the power and the atmosphere that once existed.

For my watercolours I use either a 140lb (300gsm) Fabriano or a 200lb (410gsm) Two Rivers paper.  Whether a Not or a rough surface is used depends on the required feel of a picture.  If it is raw power or excitement, a rough paper is selected because of its more aggressive quality.  For the more tranquil, early morning or evening pictures, a Not surface is more desirable.

I draw the image on the selected paper with a 4B pencil, as close to the original sketch as possible.  Keeping the pencil work light avoids damage to the paper surface if alterations have to be made with a rubber.  If mistakes have to be erased, a putty rubber is always preferable to an ordinary rubber as it causes less scarring to the paper surface.

The paper is then stretched. I fill the bath with the required amount of water (two to six inches depth depending on the size of the paper) and leave the paper submerged, sometimes for half an hour to an hour.  It is then secured to a drawing board with gum strip and I also use drawing pins for extra strength.  Left overnight it will be thoroughly dry the next day.

I use Winsor & Newton Artists’ quality watercolours. My full palette consists of raw sienna, burnt sienna, raw umber, Naples yellow, cerulean blue, cobalt, ultramarine blue, viridian, permanent rose, permanent magenta, plus cadmium red and cadmium yellow pale when needed.

Usually only four, five or six of the above colours are used on each painting – the fewer colours used the more the picture will harmonise. Cobalt and ultramarine are never used in the same work – ultramarine being a more Mediterranean blue and cobalt a much cooler blue.

With only a couple of exceptions, all my brushes are pure sable, Series 7 or 16 – a bit expensive but, looked after, these will last for many years and are well worth the initial outlay.

Painting practice

At the start of a painting I cover the whole sheet of paper, beginning at the top, with a ghost image of the subject.  Some of this initial colour will not be touched again – areas such as skies, bright snow or water.

I work largely wet-in-wet, keeping some hard edges to hold the painting together.  Using this method, rather than painting one section up to another, a much softer image results because you are always laying one wash over another.  Even in the darkest areas of a painting there are seldom more than two overlaid washes.  Mixing only two colours together at one time, but placing different mixes of colours together on the surface so that they blend together, creates depth and texture and avoids the need for details or fiddling.

Winter Shadows, watercolour, 20 x 28in (50.8 x 71.1cm). A still, cold morning broken by the rushing train along the embankment; the shadows and smoke lead you to the point of interest.

A lot of aspiring watercolourists miss the mark because they cannot get enough contrast or enough darks into their work.  Their paintings look good, but unfinished; the fear of putting such dark colours on paper is too daunting.  Mixing a very dark colour in one wash and laying it on white paper would require so much pigment that the result would be muddy and dead, however.  To achieve the dark areas as on the embankment of Winter Shadows (above), or the smoke of The Power of Steam (below), and still give it life, you have to use two washes.

The Power of Steam, watercolour 16 x 8in (40.6 x 20.2cm). Although loose in its treatment, the strength and power of this small locomotive in full cry is still evident, surrounded by suggested bridges, snow and sky.

As I first cover the paper in a ghost wash, where the dark areas appear I deliberately darken the first wash in the appropriate places. When I apply the second wash, I keep it mid-strength so that the first wash still shows through.  As this slowly dries, more richer, darker pigment is added. Varying the strength and colours of this wash gives the darks their vibrancy and life. I continue to add pigment almost until the wash is perfectly dry. The result is a very dark passage of colour that you can see into.

Smoke over the Estuary, oil. 20 x 28in (50.8 x 71cm). Everything, including the smoke, leads the eye to the subject as it winds its way along the Dovey estuary in mid-Wales.

I use only oil for my railway paintings if I think its effect would be more beneficial, as in Smoke over the Estuary (above).  The strength and contrast of the colour of the smoke against the background could not be achieved as effectively with watercolour.  The smoke draws the eye to the engine so is just as important as the subject itself.

Painting precision engineering in loose watercolour is rewarding, especially when someone recognises the class of engine in all those daubs of paint!

Summer on the Bishop’s Castle Railway, watercolour 11 x 15in (28 x 38cm). A gentle country scene with the train drifting across the bridge. A very limited palette to suggest this summer morning.