When introducing myself to non-New Yorkers, the easiest way to describe where I live is “about a 40 minute train ride from the city.” That train ride is a defining characteristic of the Long Island experience, and those precious 40 minutes must be productively occupied to make the most of the commute. While there are times when the responsible thing to do is connect to a hotspot and answer emails, my favorite way to spend a train ride into the city is by sketching a passenger or two. Whether it be my children sitting across from me, the older man reading the paper to my left, or the woman listening to music between the crack of the seats, my pen itches to capture their unique essences.
In a way, a trip on the Long Island Rail Road doubles as a free figure drawing class, but with more clothes and even more discrete glances at the models. The appeal of drawing the passengers comes from the organic nature of the situation; they are carrying about their daily lives, lost in their own thoughts, and unaware that they are part of an art form. People-watching is often intriguing to me, but when the unfamiliar faces I encounter are recorded in my sketchbook they carry a new level of significance.
To some, my tradition of drawing on the train is strange, or even a privacy violation, but I know that there are many others like me out there. Once when I was on an RER train with my children on the way from Paris to Versailles, I completed a quick portrait of a fellow passenger–a young french man with a kind face. As we were about to get off, he approached me and I was bracing myself for a negative confrontation. Maybe I blew my cover by observing him too obviously. I was pleasantly surprised when he opened up a sketchbook of his own, and presented a spot-on sketch of my son and his energetic personality packed onto one small page. While we spoke different languages, the sketching tradition united me with a stranger in a city teeming with great art.
While I enjoy sketching strangers, I also spend many train rides drawing my wife. No matter how many times I draw her, each sketch turns out to be entirely different from the last, and never really accurate. Once when I drew her in Chicago in the 90s, at the height of the Bulls’ success, I unwittingly made her look slightly like Scottie Pippen. I attribute this artistic block to her closeness and familiarity. I know her face so well that I get too much interference from my memory. Nevertheless, I’ll keep trying to capture her, and anyone else who happens to be taking the LIRR from Port Washington to Penn Station near me.