Painting with Trains on Canvas

Painting with trains or other toys with wheels is nothing new — and this certainly wasn’t the first time we did it — but here’s the Little Engineer’s latest twist on it.  His ideas led the project deeper into the realm of pretend play, and resulted in a pretty cool end product.

Not that the process isn’t the most important thing, but I really enjoy looking at this painting on our wall.  It evokes something organic, like tall grass or saplings, and the tracks of a train yard at the same time, and that seems to resonate with us. After all, one of our favorite things we’ve done was learning about trees with our wooden train tracks.

Painting with Trains on Canvas @ Play Trains!

I had wanted the Little Engineer to either squirt or dab the paint all over the canvas, but he asked me to put puddles of color all along one end.  It turns out these were “the sheds”, and we needed an engine for each color.

Painting with Toy Trains on Canvas, Now with Extra Pretend Play

The engines lined up, waiting to enter “the sheds.”

I recommend using Take’n’Play or other diecast trains for this project, because they can be washed off without too much worry.  The chunky, plastic Discover Junction Thomas trains would work too.  We use those outside and in the bath, and they hold up well to water.  Make sure to choose engines that don’t have any electronics to ruin.  And when you dry the trains, don’t leave them to sit in a puddle of water, like I did with a couple of ours this time when I forgot to move them after washing them (oops).

Painting with Toy Trains on Canvas, Now with Extra Pretend Play @ Play Trains!

Rolling Spencer down the line

After lining them up just right — I think he was trying to match engine color to paint color as much as possible, which took some thinking because some engines didn’t have a perfect match — Little Engineer put them one by one into the paint and drove them more or less straight across the canvas.  The lines had slight, natural curves to them that echoed each other, caused by him standing at the center of the table and moving only his arm across himself.  Maybe this is why the lines feel organic to me; they’re rooted in the natural motion of the human body.

Painting with Toy Trains on Canvas, Now with Extra Pretend Play @ Play Trains!

Thomas and Rosie patiently waiting their turns

He drove them across the canvas like that several times, always returning the engines to their original color or, in his mind, stall in the shed.  The whole time, he was talking, narrating what the trains were doing on the railway.

Painting with Toy Trains on Canvas, Now with Extra Pretend Play @ Play Trains!

Train tracks, or tall grass?

Then he started branching out, going straight for a moment then veering to cross other tracks.  In some cases, he tapped the engines a few times at the very end of the “track”.  I was a little disappointed, because I’d grown unintentionally attached to my own interpretation of the painting, but on the other hand the lines were starting to look like a train yard, which was cool.

Painting with Toy Trains on Canvas, Now with Extra Pretend Play @ Play Trains!

Painting switch tracks

Because he was pretending the trains were chuffing in and out of the sheds, the Little Engineer stuck with the project longer than he usually does when I give him a canvas to paint.  And somehow, by the time he got bored of painting, the organic look to the lines had returned.

Painting with Toy Trains on Canvas, Now with Extra Pretend Play @ Play Trains!

Hanging on our family room wall

And here it is on our wall.  We have a lot of other rainbow colors in our family room, so it fits right in.  I need to spray it with a fixative sometime soon.  Hopefully the weather will cooperate with that.

As I’ve been writing this, I’ve realized the Little Engineer’s painting was doing what art should do:  making me see something in a new way, make connections I had missed before.  There is something organic about the curves of train tracks.  Unlike roads, there can be no sharp, sudden corners.  Everything has to flow with the inertia of a massive train.  So maybe there’s something to that. But as interesting as those thoughts were, I definitely spent more time watching the Little Engineer and the alternating intensity and joy he brought to driving his trains through the paint that day.

Here are some of our other favorite train art experiences:

Exploring the Art of Steam Train, Dream Train (Part 1) @ Play Trains!  Drawing a steam engine with chalk to learn about the illustrations in the new book by the author and the illustrator of Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site.
Exploring the Art of Steam Train, Dream Train (Part 1)
Exploring the Art of Steam Train, Dream Train with my preschooler (Part 2) @ Play Trains!
Exploring the Art of Steam Train, Dream Train (Part 2)

Building and Painting Wooden Trains with My Toddler
Assembling and Painting Wooden Trains with My Toddler

Follow me on Pinterest for more inspiration for playing and learning with kids who love trains!



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    • says

      He can, can’t he? It’s hard to believe I ever didn’t want Thomas in our lives. :-) It’s really fun…I’ve even done it when I was art assistant at preschool just by pouring lines of paint on the table and setting cars down. I was bored because no one wanted to paint with me before that, but suddenly I had plenty of takers!

  1. says

    Love the end result, and what a great series of photos. I really love the one where the trains are all lined up, ready to plough through the blobs of paint. What fun!

    • says

      Thanks! I enjoyed taking the photos. And I actually had to leave all the best ones out, because they were all the ones with my son looking super cute as he talked to the trains.

  2. says

    What a gorgeous project! We’ve been working on making some customized art to go our our playroom walls, and one of the things we’ve been doing it priming old, second hand store canvases, and painting over them. I think we’ll try something similar to this with one of them. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • says

      That’s a great idea. I’ve been buying them at Joann Fabric because they’re always 40% off, plus a coupon, but second hand would be even cheaper. Have fun!

  3. says

    What a great craft/project for boys (and girls, my girls love cars & trains). It is not always that easy to come up with great ideas for crafting with boys and this is just brilliant! Thanks for sharing on We Made That!

    • says

      I’ve used the cars/trains + paint ploy to get boys to come hang out with me when I’m art assistant at preschool…it really does draw them in. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. says

    My boys love painting with cars, trucks and trains, but none of our paintings have ever turned out like that! Gorgeous! Thanks for sharing with The Sunday Showcase. I will be featuring you tomorrow. :)

  5. says

    What a fun project! I can’t wait to try it with my little guy. And, I’m SOOO excited to have found your blog after you left a comment on mine. My son is train obsessed. I can’t wait to spend some time on here looking at all your fun ideas.

  6. says

    Wow, yours look like proper little works of art! Don’t think my daughter will stick to straight lines at the moment – she just loves diving in there and getting messy, creating crashes, or ‘derailments’ :) x

    • says

      That’s what I think is so cool about them…they’re all different! My son is definitely the “proper railway procedures” type, so even when paint is involved the trains had to behave like Sir Topham himself was supervising. :)

  7. Mary says

    What a fantastic idea! I have two boys, age 5 & 3, who are just so into Thomas, trains, etc. They play with them all day long and never tire of them. They would LOVE this! I am not very artistic, and I have a silly newbie question: What kind of paint should we use? I’d like something that easily washes off the trains, as you mention, b/c we’ve spent a pretty good amount collecting them! Any advice you can give for a “first-timer” would be much appreciated! Thank you on behalf of my train loving boys! :)

    • says

      We use Crayola Washable Tempera paints…they wash off very easily off the metal trains. Haven’t tried them with our wooden trains…I’d be afraid of getting them too wet! And make sure to make sure they’re not sitting in a puddle of water while you leave them to dry. I made that mistake once. The trains still work fine.

      I hope that helps! And I’m glad you found our site…your boys are exactly the reason why I’m writing about all our train activities! 😉

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