Looking at one of Angela Trotta Thomas’ paintings is like taking a step back in time. Thomas has been painting Lionel toy trains for the past 20 years.

Her work with the trains began in the early 1990s, when her husband, Bob, a Lionel train collector, suggested she paint the trains for her master thesis project.

“These toys were the kind that became icons and were passed down through generations. He had all the catalogs, and I admired them,” she said.

Since then, Thomas has become the only artist to be licensed by the toy train company and has been featured on several covers of its catalogs. Her painting on the 2000 cover was the first illustrated cover since 1969, when they switched to photographs.

She will have a show of her work 5-8 p.m. Dec. 7 at Coco Vivo Gallery, 25 Broad St.

Lionel also created an Angela Trotta Thomas Christmas boxcar collection 10 years ago that comes out every year and features her art.

“It just seemed like a natural progression. Ten years ago, I licensed them, and before they licensed me,” she said.

Lionel was founded in New York City in 1900 when the railroad business was booming and trains were a popular way to travel. Joshua Lionel Cowen was the company’s founder and the inventor of the toy trains.

Thomas said many of her paintings are not about the trains themselves, but about the emotional attachment to them. She said many of her paintings are about “capturing the romance of train travel” like in her painting, “Passing Train.”

Thomas said toy train collections are popular in the Northeast, where she is from. She said she hopes her relocation to the Charleston area will spark an interest in toy trains in Southerners.

“What I have found are most of my (art) collectors are older guys who have been on a quest their whole adulthood to get the trains they couldn’t get as kids,” she said.

Thomas said the stories of the Lionel collectors inspire her to capture certain moments for her paintings.

“I think it’s the magic Lionel creates — a magic about Christmas. I’ve listened to a lot of the collectors over the years, and they’ve told me their memories. It sparks a lot of warm, fuzzy feelings about Christmas,” she said.

Thomas fell in love with Charleston five years ago and relocated to Johns Island from New Jersey this month.

“We’ve traveled extensively and we’ve been to a lot of places. We visited five years ago for only 24 hours. I looked at my husband and said, ‘This is it,’ ” she said.

Thomas said she knew Charleston was the place for her because it has the ingredients for great art.

“I wanted to end up in an artsy place. I wanted to be close to a beach, but I didn’t want to give up an urban setting,” she said.

Thomas is not just a Lionel painter. She enjoys painting places from around the world and is inspired by architecture.

“I’m so drawn to all things old. That’s why I related to Charleston. It has an old feel to it. It’s the history of the past that intrigues me. Most of my work has that Old World kind of feel,” she said.

She hopes everyone, not just toy train collectors, will be inspired by her art.

“A lot of the images are things people relate to just because they’re so synonymous with Christmas. You don’t have to be a train collector to appreciate them,” she said.

Thomas said Lionel collectors are welcome to bring in their catalogs and boxcars for her to sign at the showing. She also give will away signed copies of a Lionel catalog on a first-come, first-served basis.

For information about the Coco Vivo Gallery, go to cocovivofineart.com.

For information about Thomas’ art, go to angelafineart.com.

Reach Jade McDuffie at 937-5560 or jmcduffie@postandcourier.com.