I am always on the lookout for new subjects to paint and not long ago it came to my mind that the London Underground, its stations, tracks, trains and the people who use it, would be good material for study.
There has been a long tradition of graphic art associated with London Transport, especially the London Underground. Before and after the Second World War, designers such as McKnight Kauffer, Hans Schleger and Abraham Games produced memorable posters. Additionally, some fine artists such as John Piper were commissioned. Many of these posters have since become sought-after collector’s pieces. The tradition of Underground art continues, and beautifully illustrated colourful posters can currently be seen on station walls throughout the transport system.
However, the means of transport, the trains and buses themselves or the stations, are seldom depicted. The focus is mainly on the destinations of the trains rather than the trains themselves. On conducting some modest research into artists who have used the London Underground as a subject I have found surprisingly little. Sickert painted Queensway station years before the Second World War. In fact, the familiar LT round logo is shown in its old-fashioned diagonal shape form. At the Imperial War Museum there is in storage a massive painting by Walter Bayes of people sheltering from Zeppelin bombs at the Elephant and Castle station. Also in storage (at the Tate) are the Henry Moore drawings of sleepers in the Underground sheltering from bombs in the Second World War. One other contemporary painter is Eric Remmington, who paints in oils and has shown his London Transport paintings at The Mercury Gallery in London.
All Journeys Start Somewhere, (17.2 x 25.4cm)
I wanted to portray a system of gloomy stations, tungsten-lit ticket halls, pools of light, and shadowy figures silhouetted against train windows, a world of Brief Encounter, in fact. In the past much of the Underground did have these qualities. Not any more. In many parts of the network the gloom has gone, fluorescent lighting replaces tungsten. No shadows, no silhouettes, no pools of light and certainly no figures dressed like Trevor Howard. Furthermore, on many stations both floors and walls are faced with grid-like tiles which in the blinding light induce the feeling that one has been watching too much television.
There are still some stations where can be found corners which conform to memories of the Underground of 30 years ago, but deciding to jettison my inclinations towards nostalgia I decided that my watercolours should represent the world a it is and not as it was.
One way of proceeding would have been to go underground with my sketchbook and spend my time collecting suitable imagery and use the results as reference for more carefully considered watercolours. However, the transient nature of the travelling public will always provide difficulties for even the most rapid sketcher.
I decided to work from photographs. Normally I do not like using this kind of reference for painting. It often happens that the finished result takes on the look of a photograph. I certainly wanted to achieve a ‘realistic’ result, but hoped that I could create a painted quality which would disguise the photographic origins of the work.
One of the problems with photographs is that they are very detailed. The artist who uses them can be tempted to copy everything recorded by the camera, especially the background which, if it is in sharp focus, has the effect of flattening picture depth. One way of overcoming this, and which I sometimes use, is to make successive photocopies of the photographic print so that the image to be used as a reference is reduced to simplified shapes.
Making a start
Determined to begin with the updated sections of the system I took my Praktica down onto the Central Line. Using a flash attachment on the camera would have made my presence all too conspicuous. However, the lighting on both stations and trains was such that I could easily photograph by available light.
Central Line, (15 x 34cm). The beginning of the rush hour. I softened much of the detail in this scene to concentrate attention on the train and the travellers.
I was concerned that taking photographs might upset my fellow travellers, who might think that my camera was an intrusion into their private lives. I need not have worried. On platforms and in booking halls I don’t think anybody noticed me, or if they did, they possibly thought I was a tourist. Photographing down the length of the carriage I adopted the subtle approach of pretending to be worried about the mechanism of my camera, fiddling about with it and occasionally checking the viewfinder and hopefully unknown to the passengers clicking the exposure button.
In many cases the photographs were unsharp and badly composed, but it was often possible to extract a good subject by masking down a print to only a very small part.
The Central Line, Going East, (20 x 13cm). I used some Conté crayon hatched over the watercolour to give the work a sketchy effect. The handrails are an obtrusive feature on modern trains. I reduced the intensity of the red by greatly diluting the pigment.
From photography into paint
In the finished watercolours the overall effect I wanted to create was one of diffuseness. I wanted to avoid any precise definition of figures, avoiding the representation of facial features and details of clothing. Architecture and engineering structures would also be softened.
Liverpool Street Station, (23 x 15cm). Two people awaiting a train. I gave the figures a ‘soft focus’ quality, breaking up their outlines and the details of their clothing. The yellow and greens on the station platform are something of an invention.
The lighting on most stations and train interiors is quite flat. Pools of light and shade are now a thing of the past. However, in the finished paintings I wanted to avoid a sense of hard reality. One way of doing this is to create ambiguous illumination so that one is not certain of the position of the source of light. My working method for these paintings is similar to that of many other watercolourists but some of the following notes may be of interest.
To transfer the photographed image onto paper I used a pair of dividers to mark up the principal points of the image. The drawing thus began as a series of marks, usually twice or three times the size of similar points in the photograph. Using these marks as a scale I drew in the image freehand, often making certain alterations or deletions in the interests of composition.
I started the painting with flat washes of colour for all the main areas. Often, I dropped water or concentrated mixes of colour into the washes while wet. Doing this created interesting water marks which broke up the flatness of the watercolour. I then turned my attention to the main centre of interest in the painting (usually a figure or figures) and developed this part of the painting to a semi-finished stage.
Ticket Office at Kings Cross, (28 x 15cm). A very brightly lit subject. I lowered tonal values at the top and bottom of the painting to direct attention towards the ticket office window.
In the later stages the watercolour was built up gradually, balancing one tone against another, leaving the darkest areas until last. As the work progressed, I tried to keep the paint looking ‘interesting’ often by adding turpentine or similar substances to colour mixes. I also dropped water in wet washes to create drying marks. Rubbing out, scratching and scraping is another method I sometimes employ to break up the imagery. Doing this sort of thing too enthusiastically can really damage the paper so I find it is best to employ a certain amount of restraint.
In many cases I painted figures looking out of the painting into the distance. Figures in profile I showed in silhouette, and the facial features of those in full or three-quarter face I left quite indistinct. Clothing detail was in most cases also drastically simplified. Finally, where figures were standing against the light I broke up the edges of their forms to give the effect of strong illumination.
Circle Line, (35.5 x 28cm). I created a weak halo of light around these figures to enhance the quality of the daylight from beyond the station. I was also free with washes of colour over flat surfaces: the wall on the right, for example.
I attempted to create a sense of uneven illumination by emphasising the contrasts of light and shade found in the subject. Light reflected off station platforms or metal surfaces was exaggerated, often by a process of rubbing paint out back to the paper surface while in one or two cases I have hatched over the watercolour in areas of shadow with a 2B black Conté crayon.
Making use of gratuitous areas of watercolour paint over the picture surface is designed to break up the imagery and to contribute to the general looseness of the result. In many cases while painting I allowed or even encouraged the paint to run down the paper, creating dribbles and blots. At certain moments while the paint was wet I dropped water into washes to create a streaky effect. In general, I tried to give my paintwork an uncertain, even an accidental quality.