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!


Watercolor Lesson 5 – En Plein Air Field Kit

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. ”


En Plein Air Field Kit

This is just a short post. I’m preparing another I think will be really useful to the beginning watercolorist that’s just getting set up, but it’s not quite ready. I hope to have that one up before Christmas.

To be honest, my on location field kit and my studio setup are pretty similar. Here’s what I usually take with me.


Packed Paraphernalia: backpack, portfolio case, chair/table, water bucket, paint palette, brushes in a can, foam (orange) with cuts to hold relaxing brushes, water bottle, brush transporter, cardboard box (table) in plastic bag, viewfinder, tripod easel, board with paper

Above is my general setup when I’m standing. If I need to sit down, I just take the table off the base, which is actually a tiny, tiny, tiny (did I mention it’s small?) chair made by Doppelganger.

Field kit with chair

The chair? It’s not comfortable, but it does the job.

The table, as you can see, is simply a cardboard box protected with a plastic bag. Pretty high tech, huh? This has two advantages: it folds up easily and fits in my portfolio case, and I can use the plastic bag as a tarp if necessary to protect a floor if working indoors, or the painting if the weather turns.

Field Kit Packed

Everything fits neatly into the two bags.

When working en plein air, it’s important to have everything easy to take with you. This setup allows me to carry most of the bulk on my back, and sling the portfolio case over my shoulder. The only thing that doesn’t fit in the bags is my tripod easel, but my pack has a cover with straps which slide neatly through the easel’s legs and hold it securely to the outside of the backpack like a camper’s blanket. I want to get a little tin cup that rattles around while I’m walking just for effect.

Packed away

Wrapped up and ready for action.

Not included (because I forgot) in the initial picture is the small dollar store spray bottle you see above, and a fairly awesome Sport-Brella UV Ultraviolet parasol with a clip that I take with me if it’s very hot and sunny.

Assorted Apparatus of Apparent Awesomeness

The Brush Transporter: Brushes may be the single greatest financial investment you’ll make, and you’ll want to protect them. At home or on the go, I never like to leave my wet brushes with the tips pointing up for long. Paint, when it enters the ferrule, will destroy a brush quickly, and I personally don’t think excessive moisture left there to dry is very good, either. Especially if, in the case of when you’re out on location, the water may not be the cleanest and you haven’t worked the brushes with a cleansing soap.  This device is simply a spaghetti holder with a hairband through the opening and a hook made from a paper clip. After I rinse my brushes, I put a rubber band around them, hang them from the clip, and clean them properly when I get home, even if they’ve been naughty and don’t deserve it. Overkill? Maybe, but all of my brushes point like they’re brand new. Important notes: Make sure the container is long enough so the tips don’t touch the bottom. Also, don’t hang them in this to dry at home. Hang them out in the open so they dry quickly and don’t become moldy.

Brush Transporter

Rode hard and put away wet.


The Viewfinder: To be honest, I don’t use this that often, but I do keep it with me in case there is a particularly busy or visually confusing area and I want to box it in. It just lets you see the scene within a frame, and since it’s a neutral color, it helps you to isolate colors as well. You can find it on Amazon here. Wow, I’m not an Amazon affiliate, but after this post, I feel like I should be! I always recommend checking Cheap Joe’s or Jackson’s for supplies first. They’ve both been excellent for me and, well, they’re fighting the good fight.

That’s about it. Hope some of you can find this useful when choosing your supplies. Now, as always, I’ll leave you with my closing words of motivational wisdom. Go out there en plein air and paint something, will ya? Stop slouchin’ around on the internet. There’s nothing good on here anyway.


On Location: Heijo and an Exhibit

Had a free morning so I did a little exploring and a little painting. Near Yamato Saidaiji station there are some ancient tombs and next to them is this slightly less ancient house. It had a lot of personality with its sagging roofline and rusted corrugated steel siding. Hanging from bamboo rods in the shadows were many onions; I have no idea why, other than perhaps that’s how they dry them. It looked like the place was about to fall down, which made me like it even more.

On location in Heijo

En Plein Air in Heijo, Japan

In other news, I was pleased to have my painting “The Fiddler” in a recent exhibit at the Miraku Fine Art Gallery in Nara-ken. It’s a very nice gallery.

Nara, Japan

“The Fiddler” at Miraku Fine Art Gallery

Watercolor Lessons 4 – Paint Supply

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. ”


Paint Supply – A Grain of Salt with which to be Taken

I’m going to talk to you very, very briefly about your paint.

“Why,” one might ask, “when it is probably one of the most important part of the supplies, are you going to cover paint only briefly, Craig?”

“Well, One,” I would reply, “there are a number of reasons.”

First, I don’t think it’s really that important. Second, there are absolutely no shortage of discussions about this topic on the internet. Often opinions vary depending on the author, and I’d just be one more argument one way or the other. There are really only a few things you need to know.

  • Like with paper, buy the good paint as soon as you can. Some of the student grade paints look great, but you aren’t going to want to use them forever, so it’s better to just become accustomed to the good stuff from the beginning.
  • Some colors are considered fugitive. Avoid these as they fade quickly. Most paint manufacturers will tell you if a paint has a short or long life, and the big brands are pretty reliable in their ratings. They know honesty is the best policy. Some paints that aren’t necessarily fugitive still have a fairly short life. Research this when you’re building your palette.
  • It’s a lifelong experiment, and that’s half the fun of art. You’re going to find out what paints you like and what you don’t, but the only way to really do this is to experiment. Stop reading and just paint.

Paint Manufacturers

When I first started, I did some research and bought almost entirely Winsor & Newton paints. Now, due to my geographic location (Japan), I quickly found that buying and importing these paints was very, very expensive. I then switched to Holbein, which is a very high quality paint manufactured about half an hour from where I live and is extremely reasonable (here). This was fortuitous for me because the two paints handle quite differently and I find that I prefer working with and get better results from the Holbein colors.


This is where I’m going to leave you to do most of your own research and experimentation, though I’ve put a rough list of what I currently use.

  • Blues: Cerrulean, Cobalt, and French Ultramarine. These give you three shades from light to dark. Blues will darken any color you mix them with, so using these three gives you a nice variety of shades.
  • Earth: Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, Raw Umber, and maybe Sepia and Brown Madder.
  • Warm: Cadmium Red, Cadmium Scarlet, Winsor Yellow. It would probably help to get a cooler yellow in here, too.


  • Winsor Violet is a lovely color that may not have the best lifespan. I use it because it’s so vibrant, but I keep this in mind.
  • Perylene Maroon or Alizarin Crimson. I use the former, but the two are very similar.
  • Quinacridone Magenta and Permanent Rose: I don’t use these often. I tend to only reach for them when I’m painting flowers.
  • Daniel Smith Titanium White: I don’t use white often in my work, but this stuff is amazing for painting smoke or haze. None of the other brands come close to it.
  • Payne’s Gray: I love this color when used in moderation. It mixes well with both cool and dark colors.
  • Greens: Greens are tough and the bane of many watercolorists. I use Viridian for cools, and try to mix my other greens as best as possible. I try to avoid straight green whenever I can, mixing in browns and reds to give it more variation in tone and color.
  • Black: Lots of instructors will tell you to stay away from black and instead mix your darks. I do have black in my palette, but honestly, I almost never go to it. Mixing and using colors is almost always a better option, and will give your darks more vibrancy.

Try a small tube of (convenience colors):

  • Indigo: Indigo is a nice color and lots of people use it, but I find that if I use it to make my darks, things tend to go flat. It’s worth checking out, though.
  • Neutral tint: I used to use neutral tint to dull down colors that were to vibrant without making things muddy. Recently, I hardly use it though, instead opting for a hint of Payne’s Gray, or a touch of the complimentary of the color.
  • Holbein Lavender: This is a very opaque color. I only use it in very tiny amounts to add a little glow to shadow areas, where it can be very effective when used in moderation.

Limit Your Palette as Much as Possible

It's messy, but it works

My current palette setup. Warmish colors and white on the top. Cool colors, earth tones, and blacks along the bottom.

Look, you don’t need to buy every color paint you think you might need. In fact, it’s best you don’t. Learn to create and make the colors that you need. Of course, there are some you will find you love, and others you’ll find you just don’t use much. Experiment, keep your palette trim, and add or subtract as needed. As you can see above, I have far more colors on my palette than I need, simply because I’m not so good at following my own advice. And I’m lazy. There are colors there I haven’t used for months. When I get rid of them, I’ll likely double up on some of my more used colors such as the blues, maroon, and burnt sienna.

Get to Know Your Colors

When first starting out, I highly recommend doing two things. First, get a nice, small group of colors that allow you to create the greatest range. The one’s I’ve mentioned above are a good start, then season to your taste.

Second, and this is the most boring but I can’t stress it enough. Do swatches. Just sit down with a blank page and some relaxing music and start mixing paint. See what works together and what doesn’t. Pay attention and remember, watercolor is about letting the paint do the work. Put two or three colors next to each other, and gently push them together. You don’t want to mix and make a pile of mud.

And third (out of the two things) is JUST PAINT. It doesn’t matter if it looks good or right. You will learn with time and experience what colors work well together and what combinations to avoid. The same thing goes for your water mixture. It’s sometimes hard for an inexperienced artist to know just how much water to use. Experience is the best education, and swatches are one tool in your experience toolbox.


Last but not least, a very brief note on palette maintenance. Here’s what works really well for me. I paint almost every day, but even if I miss a few days, doing the following keeps my paints nice and fresh. By the way, I bought this palette from Jackson’s Art. There are other tin palettes around, but I found this to be the most reasonable in terms of price. You can order from them directly or through Amazon if that’s more comfortable. I recommend avoiding the plastic palettes. More on that in another lesson.

Palette with paper towel.

A damp paper towel in your palette will keep things moist for your next session.

1. When you finish painting, fold a kitchen towel in half, spray it with water, and lay it inside your palette as shown above. I’ll use a towel for a few days or a week, and then switch it out with a new one. You could use a sponge, too, but the towel has the added benefit of being useful for cleanup if you need it.

Palette put away for the day.

Wrapped up and put away wet.

2. Slip your palette in a plastic bag and wrap it up. I use a washed bread bag and a couple of hair bands I stole borrowed from my daughter.

3. When you’re ready to paint the next time, your paints should already be fairly moist. I generally spray with a mist of water a few minutes before I start just to make sure.

Note: If you’re not planning on painting for a while, it’s best to let your paints dry before closing up your palette to avoid mold. I’ve never had a problem myself, but I know some people have.

Now stop surfing the internet and go paint something already. Geesh.


Sketches for the Rainy Season

I haven’t been doing a lot of sketches lately, instead working directly toward finished paintings. I had some downtime this week though, and a bit of rain, so I put a few things in my sketchbook.

Flowers and geta

Flowers and geta on my balcony.


Pet goldfish. They’re always hungry.

Hashi and Sake

Chopsticks and sake – things on the table.

Whiskey that still isn't opened.

Whiskey. A gift.

Gifu Stroll – Gifu, Japan

GIfu Japan - Gifu Stroll

Gifu Stroll – Gifu, Japan


Gifu Stroll – Watercolor on Fabriano Artistico – 9.25 x 13.25

I recently took a trip to Nagoya, and while I was there stopped by Mitarashi in Gifu City to enjoy the old historic buildings, shops, ryokan and restaurants along the Nagara River. This painting is of a small path that wanders between the back of the buildings on the main street and the park. To the right, unseen in this painting, is a remarkable Japanese restaurant and art gallery which I also painted and will post shortly. It was a brilliant and scorching day, and nearly all of the women were using parasols and/or black UV hats and gloves.