Taking a Day Trip to See Some Trains

I imagine that most artists, if not all, find ways to incorporate their other hobbies and interests into their subject matter, especially if they’re doing representational art. It would be weird and probably uninspiring to make art that you don’t care about, right? I’ve included ballet in my paintings and drawings, along with place I’ve traveled to, abandoned stuff, and flowers (a LOT of flowers). Another burgeoning interest of mine over the last year or so has been trains — particularly steam locomotives, though the more modern ones hold a certain fascination for me too. Both of my great grandfathers on my dad’s side built steam engines for locomotives back in the day, so maybe it’s genetic. When I lived in Baltimore, I took the light rail and the Amtrak regularly to get around (partly because they were much more reliable than the buses). It’s my favorite way to get to and from Chicago, too.

Rows of trains at the Illinois Railway Museum. (Note: these photos are largely unedited, so the color/ quality might be a little off. I realize I’m probably the only one who might notice or care, but there it is.)
I’m basically going to be useless when it comes to giving information about any of these trains, though I can tell you that people still do trainspot (is that a word?), and if you Google the engine number and the company, you might find a whole history on where the train has been since it was built.

Earlier this year (before COVID shut everything down) I discovered the existence of the Illinois Railway Museum while doing an internet search for locomotives for another project. It’s basically a huge rail yard in northern Illinois where they exhibit and restore trains. They have steam locomotives, diesel engines, electric trains, street cars and trolleys, Pullman passenger cars, and lots of other stuff that I in my limited knowledge wouldn’t know how to classify. Their seasonal opening was delayed, of course, but they did open to the public back in July. Jake and I took a day trip there last Sunday (it’s about six hours round trip, though we made a couple other stops as well).

Look at these colors! The rust looks so striking against the blue. (Is it weird to get excited about rust?)

We didn’t get there til mid-afternoon, so we had about three hours to roam the grounds (and ride both a street car and an old passenger car). We didn’t get to see everything, but I did take almost 200 pictures of what we did see — which was just lots and lots of trains. There are some exhibits set up, but it’s much more a rail yard than a museum. They have giant barns with train cars and engines inside, and a lot of them have signs up explaining what they know of the train’s history, but there are also vast outdoor areas with rows of track lined with several different cars and engines. Some of them you can climb on or see into, and some you can’t. There weren’t a whole lot of other people around, so most of the time it kind of felt like we had the place to ourselves, which was a lot of fun. And now I have a great collection of new reference photos for another series of paintings.

Human included for scale. Look at this beast! I’m almost 6′ tall, and I look tiny compared to this. I think this old steam engine (from 1916, according to the sign) was my favorite train of the day.

Have you ever taken a trip somewhere in the name of research for your art? Where did you go? What were you looking for (reference photos, information on technique, etc.)? How did it go?

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