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Local artist's oil paintings of rolling trains featured in new calendar

Nurtured by his grandmother's oil paintings and inspired by his father's years of train photography, Patrick Michael Karnahan loves painting landscapes -- especially ones featuring steam engines.

The 48-year-old Twain Harte artist's works are featured in the 2008 Orchard Supply Hardware calendar, a popular collector's item for those who cherish memories when steam engines ruled the rails, before the highly-efficient but more-sterile diesel locomotives muscled them aside.

"Paintings can take you to a different place," Karnahan said. "It relives the past, brings back forgotten memories. A painter can recreate the feeling of a time period."

The 13 images chosen from 40 submitted for the OSH calendar are almost all California steam subjects, except one portraying a White Pass & Yukon Railroad passenger train traversing a steep timber bridge in mountainous Alaskan territory. A half-million train calendars are being distributed at 85 OSH stores throughout California.

The late Clara Karnahan started oil painting in 1929, specializing in landscapes and florals. She would babysit her grandson in her studio and this provided the inspiration for him to start painting as a youngster.

"She influenced me big time. My first painting was at age 8; I still have it," Karnahan said. "I painted a lot in elementary school and high school. I sold some paintings to earn money through school."

Karnahan has created more than 800 original oil paintings of American railroads. His work is featured on book and magazine covers, past calendars, train enthusiast magazines and official United States Forest Service posters.

His father, George, who just turned 85, never took up painting but traveled all over California photographing vintage steam engines, and his son often accompanied him on these trips in the late 1950s when steam engines were being rapidly phased out.

Karnahan still paints landscapes not involving trains. In his train paintings, he makes the locomotive an integral part of the surroundings since it builds interest in the subject. He likes to accentuate depth perception by pushing shadows and intensifying highlights for a three-dimensional quality.

In all his vintage train paintings, Karnahan tries to pinpoint the reflective, metal quality of steam engines. When he concentrates, he can complete a painting in about two weeks. Customarily, however, he has two or three paintings going at one time. The drying time involved in traditional oil painting also is a factor in the time involved in finishing projects.

Karnahan loves the Yosemite Valley Railroad that ran from El Portal to Merced from the early 1900s to the mid-1940s. He has painted YVRR scenes of trains chugging along paralleling Highway 59 just outside Merced on the way to Snelling and working the freight yards of Merced, approximately where Fremont Charter School now is located.

He still wants to paint a YVRR train, highlighted by brilliant afternoon colors in the Merced River canyon, to capture the drama and romance of the era.

Karnahan concedes there aren't very many artists who paint trains. His biggest sellers right now are wildland firefighting subjects, concentrating on aerial tankers and fire crews battling forest fires.

Karnahan, who has his work displayed at galleries in Carmel and Laguna Beach, admits there are only two or three people painting wildland fire art subjects now. He worked for the U.S. Forest Service for 14 years, starting as a timber cruiser and advancing to firefighter and interpreter.

In the OSH calendar, Karnahan's images include a Yosemite Lumber Co. Shay engine with its intricate side-mounted pistons, a Southern Pacific 4-6-2 steam engine and two passenger cars chugging along between Gustine and Tracy, an 1891-vintage Sierra Railroad engine near Jamestown, a massive Western Pacific steamer in the Feather River canyon east of Oroville, a distinctive SP "cab-forward" engine ascending a Southern California mountain pass, and the eyecatching SP "Shasta Daylight" in its multi-hued orange and black colors.

Stressing he is not an illustrator or concerned with rendering every nut and bolt found on a steam engine, Karnahan said creating the smoke that steam engines are best known for is an interesting challenge. But it's part of creating the romantic image that was involved in traveling on steam trains of yesteryear.

Karnahan is in charge of restoring the No. 4 Shay locomotive that's pictured on the calendar cover. He said the volunteer restoration effort should be done in about two years, with new boiler tubes now being installed.

Oil painting is not Karnahan's only passion. He plays banjo, guitar, accordion and trumpet in the Black Irish folk band. He also has owned a Celtic festival for 22 years, which takes place each March in Sonora and promotes a Renaissance fair in September.

Karnahan was contacted by OSH in late April to submit images of his train paintings for the calendars, offered since 1975. The selection process took two months. This is the first time OSH has focused solely on one state's railroads.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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