This is 30: On drawing on Metro

For most of us, riding the train offers to chance to read, regroup, or catch a break from the hustle as we travel from Point A to Point B. For Eileen Hsu, Principal Transportation Planner in Metro’s Office of Strategic Innovation, riding the train is an opportunity to flex a creative muscle. Read on to learn why sharing a rail car with a stranger for a stop or two is plenty of time to capture an essence.  

By Eileen Hsu 

Photo: Aurelia Ventura

When I began taking art classes as a teenager in the Bay Area, studying the figure was a big part of the program. To get extra practice, I would draw the reflections of riders in the windows of the BART train as it sped through dark tunnels. When mobile phones became commonplace, I found that people became so transfixed by their screens that they didn’t notice when I drew them.

As the drawer, by contrast, I’m deeply conscious of my physical environment and the fleeting nature of each moment. 

Between the sitting phone user and the standing book reader, it’s obvious who was moving more. Morning commute on the A Line.

I don’t aim to capture likenesses in my drawings, so I don’t think the subjects mind. Sometimes I don’t draw faces at all. I focus on the total composition: the atmosphere and mood of their poses.

The passenger seemed to be reading a suspenseful book, rubbing her feet together as she read. Meanwhile the man in the foreground casually checked his phone to pass the time.

I have no formula for selecting subjects. I am simply looking for people from diverse walks of life, or people I have not drawn before. I hone in on what I think is the most striking feature about that rider, knowing that they could depart as soon as the next stop. It could be the way light falls on their crisp shirt, or the ways they arrange their shopping bags, or the snugness of their nap as they ride, or the smallness of a lone rider in a cavernous train car.   

This bespectacled rider in a wool coat holding a real leather bag with silver zippers appeared as if she came from a period piece (or a vintage streetcar). PM commute on the A Line.

And it’s ok if they get off at the next stop. One of my art teachers once said that the sketch is the most authentic visual expression you can create. You don’t have time to be aimless or judgmental. A sketch comes straight from the soul. Even if it is unfinished, it is complete because it conveys the most important thing you perceived about something in a finite period of time. 

A rough and tumble scribble can tell a complete story …

… enough to become a painting! Morning commute on the A Line.

I’ve never been “caught“ drawing anyone! Or if I was, they played it down and didn’t care. Sometimes, the person sitting next to me will watch me and my sketchpad as I draw. That used to make me self-conscious but I’ve gotten over it. It’s like public speaking — public drawing! The people who have watched me seem to find it entertaining. More people used to sketch on transit but as with many analog activities, they’ve tapered off. So I’ve become a bit of a novelty. 

I think all artists are pushing themselves to go deeper and be more profound in what they offer a viewer, both in terms of perception and technique. For me, I think about how my looking translates into understanding and connecting. The other day, I tried to focus on hands and what people’s “hand poses” were expressing. You can do all kinds of things with your face and your attire. But how your hands and feet behave reveal how you really feel.  

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1 reply

  1. I have a vision of this being an animated short for a commercial for WMATA, with the sound effects added with penciling of the art moving… And it ending in real time with the camera on the pad and zooming out onto the artist… With an underlying caption to it: The Ridership View or Art in Transit or something that captures and defines it best❤