Learning how to draw receding railroad tracks in one point perspective is one of the very first basic lessons for art students learning to create the illusion of space on a flat sheet surface. Although there are many ways to depict the suggestion of space–such as color changes, tonal values, shape and size relationships, and degree of detail–linear perspective is foundational to realism. Somewhere between 1415 and 1420, an Italian architect named Filippo Brunelleschi developed a way to create the illusion of space using a vanishing point, a horizon line, and orthogonals. His experiment in front of the Baptistry in Florence was later documented by the architect and writer Leon Battista Alberti in 1435, and the rest, as they say, is history!
What’s the point? Why do artists need to know perspective? Because vanishing points are all around us! Take a photo of any street scene on your phone, run it through a printer, and with a black marker, trace the edges of the road, the walk, or parts of the buildings that go away from you. Those lines will converge at a point on an imaginary line level with your eyes! That's called linear perspective. There are loads of great online tutorials to explain it fully.
Lately I have been obsessed with railroad tracks! My three newly completed oil paintings of converging train tracks are “Train Tracks with Altocumulus Undulatus Clouds,” “Train Tracks with Morning Snow,” and “Train Tracks with Color.” I included an eye level line, orthogonals, and a vanishing point in each painting. Spoiler alert: since there are currently no active train tracks InSide the Back Mountain, I based these paintings on photos taken by my good buddy, Ed Steber. Ed lives in Mocanaqua and has train tracks (and trains!) running through his backyard!
What’s the point? Why do many artists, including myself, paint the same subject over and over? Vermeer kept painting light coming in a window on the left. Monet painted haystacks and water lilies over and over. George Catlin painted Native Americans. It's called working in a series. It's a way to explore variations in subject matter, compositions, and color harmony. It is a buffet of goodies for the artistic soul!
According to Back Mountain historian D.A. Waters, the very first train engine reached Dallas on December 9, 1886, on Lehigh Valley railroad tracks begun a year earlier. It was originally called the Harveys Lake Branch, but was later extended to Bernice, a distance of about 50 miles, and then called the Bowman Creek Branch. Several lumber companies operated trains over these tracks by contract. At one time there were over 85 sidings, thirteen in Dallas alone. After the lumber industry tapered off, Albert Stull built two dams in the area known as Mountain Springs and harvested and sold thousands of carloads of natural ice each year in the days before electric refrigerators. A local freight moved through Dallas daily between Wilkes-Barre and Towanda. Passenger trains ran through Dallas from both ends of the line daily with a several hour layover at each end. Special excursion trains ran to Harveys Lake in the summer. My husband Joe remembers trains passing by his family’s boathouse at the Lake! The trains provided business for Dallas and other points, creating employment for many! Service between Luzerne and Noxen where a large tannery was located was discontinued December 22, 1963. Tracks and structures were removed piecemeal in the next year or two.
Drawing, painting, and photography are just a few of the popular ways we humans create works of art in order to appreciate our ordinary lives and the world around us. Some folks call it regionalism. Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood were regionalists. So were Andrew Wyeth and Charles Burchfield. So am I. And I regret not painting the trains and tracks InSide the Back Mountain years ago.
What’s the point? I am thankful for NEPA. For Luzerne County. For the Back Mountain. For Ed Steber's one track mind dedicated to photographing the beauty of his world. For my opportunities to paint and teach and write. My one track mind is obsessed with appreciating all things local, wherever I happen to be at that moment! November is the month of Thanksgiving. I complained about the heat of summer. Now the heat is gone. I complained about summer insects. They’re gone! I am thankful for my Artist’s Eye, for family, for friends like Ed, for all our readers, and for this, my nine year anniversary of writing a monthly article for InSide the Back Mountain!
With gratitude, I wish you all a happy and blessed Thanksgiving!
This article originally appeared in the November 2023 publication of InSide the Back Mountain.