Watanabe Ryokan, Miyajima, Japan

Watanabe Ryokan, Miyajima, Japan by Craig Pirrall

Miyajima Summer Tea
Watercolor on Paper
14 x 20.5 Inches

A hard thing about being a painter is knowing when to stop. I’m never completely satisfied with what I do, so I always feel like there’s more that I could do. But as all artists know, could and should are two completely different animals. Sometimes I just have to snap a picture, crop out the ugly tape, and look at it for a few days or weeks. That’s where I’m at with this piece. There are parts I like, and parts I don’t think work so well. After a little time and mental distance, I’ll be able to know whether it works as a whole or not. Usually, I’m happier after a few days.

Miyajima and the Watanabe Ryokan

One of my favorite tourist spots in Japan is Miyajima. It has everything. It’s small and old, has lovely temples and shrines, and is by the sea. I’m sure you’ve seen the amazing gate at Miyajima rising from the water. The island is only accessible by boat, and is about a 20 minute ride from the mainland. Once there, depending on the season, you might find crowds of people joining you, but here’s a hint. After you visit the tourist spots around the gate and shrine, head towards the mountain. There are rarely many people there, but many beautiful places to see. At least it’s been that way when I’ve gone.

Gate at Miyajima

Miyajima Gate

And one of my favorite places to stay is the Watanabe Ryokan. I always go to Miyajima with the intention of exploring the island, but then enjoy the ryokan so much that we end up just sticking around there and relaxing. Go check out their website. If you’re taking a trip to Japan, it won’t be complete unless you go to Miyajima, and I highly recommend staying at the Watanabe ryokan while you’re there. And they speak English as well!


Ponyo’s Home – Tomonoura, Hiroshima

Tomonoura is a great little port town in Hiroshima prefecture, but outside of the city proper. This seaside port, fishing harbor, and town is where Hayao Miyazaki based the location of Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea ( 崖の上のポニョ). He was inspired by the location after taking a vacation there, and even designed one of the cafes in the town.

It’s a wonderfully quaint little Japanese town and perfect for sketching. I guess I wasn’t the only one who thought so. A large number of school children were there with their sketchbooks as well.

Click HERE to visit Tomonoura’s official homepage.

Ponyo Town Island Temple

Heading Home
Fishing Boat by Island Temple
Watercolor – 10 x 12 in


Ponyo Town Harbor

Heading Out
Tomonoura Harbor
Watercolor, 10 x 12 in


All around the port there are many stingrays swimming around. I’d never seen them in the wild before.

Brazen Stingray

This guy looks like he’s going to walk right up the stairs.

About Tomonoura – According to Japan-Guide.com:

Tomonoura (鞆の浦) is a port town at the southern end of Fukuyama City, Hiroshima Prefecture. Situated at a bay facing the Seto Inland Sea, the picturesque port town features an endearing old-fashioned fishing townscape, with a calm and laid-back atmosphere. Tomonoura is part of theSetonaikai National Park.

Tomonoura prospered in the olden days of sail boats, when merchant ships traveling along the Seto Inland Sea would dock at its port while waiting for a favorable tide. The town center flourished with the bustling sea activity, leading to thriving industries such as the production of “homeishu”, a medicinal liquor of shochu and 16 types of herbs, said to promote longevity.

Ikoma Mountain, Nara – Kuragari House

Kuragari Mountain House, Ikoma

Ikoma Mountain House
Watercolor on Fabriano Artistico
34 x 51 cm

This home is near the summit of Ikoma Mountain and sits high above the road along one side of the ancient Kuragari Pass. It overlooks the scenic terraced rice fields, but what fascinated me more than the beauty of the location was the way the building seemed to be almost pieced together of rusted patchwork corrugated steel panels, mud walls, and stone. Perhaps at one time it was a majestic home rising above all that surrounds it and has since fallen into disarray, or maybe it was always like it is now. Either way, its haphazard construction is what made it such an intriguing subject.

Ikoma Mountain and the Kuragari Pass

Ikoma Mountain separates Nara and Osaka and is networked with ancient footpaths, statues, temples/shrines, and tombs. I’m not certain how old the Kuragari Mountain Pass is, but one of the statues I saw is dated at 1270, which is about as old as the Fabriano paper company, on which this scene is painted. The cobblestone streets wind along the steep incline on the Nara side, over the summit with the Suehiro tea house just on the border between Osaka and Nara, and down the even steeper road on the Osaka side. It’s not an easy walk, but it is rewarding for the amazing sights and history. Along the way there are many cafes and small restaurants to rest. One of my favorites is Lucky Garden.

Stone statue dated 1270

Stone statue dated 1270

Kurashiki, Japan – Boats on the Canal

Kurashiki, Japan

Kurashiki, Japan
Watercolor on Fabriano Artistico Paper
56 x 76 cm

I took a drive down to Hiroshima a little while ago, and on the way home stopped by the wonderful town of Kurashiki. Below is text from Japan-Guide.com, where you can find more information and beautiful pictures of the town.

Kurashiki (倉敷) is located in Okayama Prefecture, not far from the prefectural capital of Okayama City. Kurashiki has a preserved canal area that dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1867), when the city served as an important rice distribution center. In fact, the name “Kurashiki” can be roughly translated as “town of storehouses”, which refers to the storehouses in which the rice was kept.

There were many unique and interesting shops, museums, and places to eat. The canal was beautiful, and full of some swans and some huge koi, the latter of which you are welcome to feed.

Black Dress #1

Watercolor by Craig Pirrall

Black Dress #1
56cm x 76cm
Watercolor on Fabriano Artistico Extra White

This is the first in a series I’m planning on doing featuring this model in this dress. I’ll post more as I go. I haven’t been doing figure as much as I’d like, and I want to get back to it. I really enjoy the challenge of working with the figure. It’s a completely different feeling than when painting landscape.



Casablanca Lilies – Watercolor Sketch on Fabriano Artistico paper

I’m not big on painting flowers. It’s just not a subject that generally motivates me on a personal level. I have great respect for artists who can capture the delicate intricacies and light atmosphere of flowers, but I’d rather paint people, or the sea, or scenes from town. Still, once in a while someone gives us a bouquet for a special occasion, and I like to give it a go. These huge Casablanca lilies were given to us after a piano concert. They remind me of something out of the movie Day of the Triffids, or that original Star Trek episode (This Side of Paradise) with the flowers that spray spores on people and control their minds. Anyway, it was a fun exercise, if not entirely successful, and only enhances my respect for the people who can do it well.

Someone just made a comment about this piece on Google+, and I responded with:

It’s an oddly relaxing experience for me, for some reason. Maybe because I treat flower painting more as an exercise rather than a finished painting, I can relax more and let the process be organic.

I think that’s true. After all, what’s more important when painting nature than being organic?


Photo of Casablanca Lilies

The actual Casablanca Lilies


Red Barn – Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Farm In Lancaster

Red Barn in Lancaster, Pa.
52cm x 72cm

The last time I was home I took the family to the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire at the Mount Hope Winery. Saw this gorgeous farm under an incredible sky while driving through Lancaster. Having lived in Japan for some time now, it’s amazing to come home and see how big the sky is. I can’t explain why it seems that way, but the sky in America is vast.


Her First Bouquet

by Craig Pirrall

13 x 19.5 inches
Fabriano Artistico Extra White Rough 300gsm

My painting “Her First Bouquet” was accepted in another juried show at the Miraku Fine Art Gallery in Nara-ken. The show is over now, but as before, I was pleased to be among so many excellent artists. I was the only foreigner in the show, so that was kind of fun, too.

This is a second version of this painting. In the first one there were a number of places I felt didn’t work as well as I would have liked. This one is closer to what I wanted, but since this is a personal subject I might give it a third try at some point. As so often happens when redoing a previous painting, I ended up with parts of both paintings that I like, and other parts no-so-much. Still, overall, I’m fairly pleased with how this one turned out. I’ve been meaning to post this for a while now, but the photograph showed a little waviness in the paper and I’ve been intending to pull it down from the wall, out of the frame, and reshoot it, but I just haven’t done it yet. I’ll update this post and the gallery with a better picture soon.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas!!!

Wishing a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and a joyous holiday season to all of my friends around the world. I hope the new year will bring you much happiness, peace, and love.

I handpainted a few cards for the family.

I hand-painted a few cards for the family.

Watercolor Lesson 6 – The Swiveling Easel

Pen on journal


“This is part of my Watercolor Lessons series of posts, where I share personal experiences that I feel have not been sufficiently or succinctly covered elsewhere. If you’re interested only in the lessons and not my normal blog posts, you can easily select them in the categories box on the right. ”



When I first started watercolor painting, the singular thing I spent the most time trying to figure out was this easel. Through lots of research on the internet about what people had done, this setup was the easiest and least expensive that I could put together. I had seen Alvaro Castagnet working with a similar easel and wanted to try to make one myself. Note: This is my first attempt at making a board from foamcore instead of wood, so come on! Let’s try this experiment together. The steps are almost the same, though.

The Swiveling Easel – Why? Well, I’ll tell ya.

In watercolor, it’s very important to control the flow of the water on the paper. Sometimes you may want the water (and therefore the pigment) to lay flat and not move around much. In other circumstances, you might want the paint and water to move quickly down the paper. This easel setup will allow you to do just that without having to make adjustments to the easel while you’re working.

Note: I usually use a thin board made from processed wood for this, but since I needed a larger board for some larger work, and I was concerned about weight, I went with foamcore. It’s not nearly as sturdy as the the wood, as you can see in the video.


The supplies you need are:

  • sturdy but lightweight tripod with a quick-release shoe. Make sure you get one that has extra shoes readily available. I have a number of boards in the same and different sizes that I can swap instantly.
  • board
  • thingy (see below. I don’t know what it’s called.) Tee Nut – Threads should be the same diameter as the original screw on your tripod’s shoe.
  • screw (I use one with an allen wrench head so I can really crank it down)
  • washers
  • long ruler – I recommend you get one with a finger guard for all your cutting needs.
  • box cutter
  • packing tape
  • hammer
  • scissors
  • marker
  • awe or drill (depending on the surface you’re using)


Swivel Supplies

Swivel easel supplies – Note: you can see a finished board made from wood that the supplies are sitting on.

Tripod: The SLIK F740 tripod is one I highly recommend. The shoes are wide and large, adding a greater surface area for the board to rest on. In addition, the tripod itself is well made, sturdy, and inexpensive. You can find it on Amazon here, but you may want to ask at your local camera store if you can get the replacement shoes easily. Where I live, they’re very easy to find and cheap, but I don’t see any on the American Amazon website. It doesn’t matter what tripod you use as long as it’s sturdy, lightweight, and has quick release shoes that are fairly large.

Support: If you’re working small (45×60 cm or less), I highly recommend using processed wood instead of foamcore. It’s a much sturdier and more secure surface to work on. The downside is it’s much heavier. If you go this route, see what your local hardware store has to offer. Plywood is probably going to be too heavy to carry around, and may push the limits of the tripod.



Cut the Board to the Required Size

I mark it out lightly first with a marker or pencil. It’s easy to cut when using foamcore. If you use wood (like I usually do) and you don’t have the necessary tools, you can ask the store to cut it for you.

Swivel precut

I leave about a half an inch on three sides and more on one side so I can tape scrap paper there and check my colors before using them.

Swivel paper size

Tape the Edges

Makes it look nice and protects it from moisture.

Swivel Taped


Find the Center and Use an Awe or Drill to Make a Hole

This hole should be slightly larger than the diameter of the tee nut’s shaft. Hey, you in the back, stop laughing. Geesh, there’s one in every crowd.

Swivel awe

Attach the Shoe to the Board

Here are the supplies you’ll need for this step. The screw and threads on the tee nut must be the same diameter as the original screw on your tripod, or at least a diameter that allows the screw to fit into the shoe’s original opening.

Swivel washers and screws and thingies

Hammer the tee nut into the board. These brilliant little devices have spikes that dig down into the board and keep the screw secure. No matter how you turn and twist the board, they won’t loosen. When I use wood, I add a silicone glue to make this even more sturdy. I was afraid to try it with the foamcore, and maybe that’s partially why it’s not as sturdy as I would like. My wooden boards are much more sturdy.

Swivel thingy in


Remove the original screw from your shoe and insert the new one. NOTE: You may be able to avoid this step if you can find a tee nut that has the same threads as your shoe’s original screw. I couldn’t, and it was just easier to buy a matching screw.

Swivel foot removal

Add washers to the shoe so that when you screw it into the board, the screw doesn’t protrude from the opposite side.

Swivel foot adjustment

You want to make this as flush as possible, so use washers to keep the screw from coming through too far.

Swivel screwed in


Here’s what it looks like on the back.

Swivel foot on


Put a piece of tape over the metal to protect it from moisture, and to protect your paper.

Swivel cover with tape

Attach the shoe to the tripod, and you’re ready to go!

Final Thoughts

The foamcore is easier to assemble than the wooden boards, but I’m not entirely happy with the stability. I think the main issue is the tee nut isn’t able to get the same grip it has with the wood. I’ll play with this some more in the future and update this post if I find any solutions. I’m considering gluing heavy cardstock or even a thin piece of wood to the back of the board to give the tee nut a firmer hold. I haven’t had a chance to paint on this large board yet. It seems like it will be okay, but if you are working in a smaller size, I would still recommend going with a wood surface. I use wood up to a 45×60 cm surface, and it works very well.

As always, good luck, have fun, and go paint something great!