Gareth Naylor

Atmospheric paintings of Japan

Watercolor painting of people strolling under the Cherry blossom trees

Watercolor paintings of the Cherry blossom in Japan

Watercolor painting of people walking by the Cherry blossom trees at Funai castle
“Refreshing walk by the Cherry blossom trees”

It is cherry blossom time and people are gathering under the cherry trees, called Sakura in Japanese, and having picnics.

And that’s what I did today with my family. It’s all very festive and sociable.

My father-in-law, who loves Japanese history, was trying to tell me about cherry trees being gifted to America by the Japanese in 1912. They were first planted along the Potomac river and have become a symbol of friendship between Japan and America.

Although beautiful, cherry blossoms are difficult to paint in watercolor because of their lightness of color and it is necessary to leave white paper in order to achieve this lightness.

A few years ago when I attempted to paint cherry blossoms I was so disgusted with my results that I just gave up.

Last year, however, I had another go and was a little more pleased with the results. And so this year I had another go. 

To be honest, I still feel that I haven’t captured that delicacy and beauty. However, I am happy with these results and look forward to doing more cherry blossom paintings in the near future.

Sadly, the first painting I did on this day wasn’t very good. So I’m not going to show it.

However, while I was painting this picture, a tourist from Honolulu stopped to talk to me and tell me about his life and travels. 

He’d wanted to visit the city next to Oita which is called Beppu. It is famous for its natural hot spas and hot sand baths. But by mistake he’d ended up in a hotel in Oita. 

It was really enjoyable to speak to a native English speaker as sometimes I go for weeks without talking to such a person except for family on the phone. 

I am somewhat of a recluse. 

Well, I can’t waste valuable time socializing that could be used for painting. And also there aren’t so many foreigners around in Oita.

Below is my final painting of the day. To be honest, I’m not very happy with this one either.

Watercolor painting of people having picnics under the Cherry blossom trees
“Picnic under the Cherry blossom”

While I was painting this final one I got numerous compliments from people, especially old Japanese women

And two Chinese girls came and talked to me and even took a picture of my painting and a picture of me next to one of them. 

This used to happen a lot when I first came to Japan but is now quite rare. Perhaps it is because I’m getting wrinkly.

I left with the sun going down and large groups of people coming with crates of beer and barbecue grills. It looked fun.

The next day

Watercolor painting of a statue by Oita castle and behind it Cherry blossom trees
“Cherry blossom by a Japanese castle”

The sun shone again today so between housework, job and daughter I found a gap for painting. I’m an artist with clipped wings! 

So, I cycled down to the castle again to paint the Cherry blossom. And I found the beautiful scene above right next to a bus stop.

I received quite a few compliments from passersby. The most memorable was by an old Japanese man with a warm smile who said: “I also paint but you are much more excellent than me”.

If these compliments stroked my ego, my wife soon remedied that at dinner time. About fifteen minutes after she had told me it was April Fool’s day she said that the raisin bread I was happily chewing on was two days old. 

To be honest, I would have still eaten it even if it was two days old, but her remark did make me pause in mid-chew with a look of concern; and this really delighted my wife, her smile was almost glowing.

The day after next

Watercolor painting of people strolling under the Cherry blossom trees
“Walking beneath the falling Cherry blossom”

I could have painted the cherry blossom by the castle again today, but I felt the urge to move out of this comfort zone and try another place.

So I went to a place by the river.

I instantly regretted this urge when I felt the very cool breeze by the river blowing against me.

But I had decided so now I was following through come hell or cold breezes. Okay, maybe a tsunami would make me turn around.

And I found a beautiful scene to paint after all.

It took me a while, though, to find a good composition. I would say this is the most important element of a painting. You really are doomed if you don’t get the composition right and for this reason I don’t mind spending quite a long time looking around and making rectangular frames with my fingers.

If you want to learn about composition I recommend the Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting by Edgar A Whitney. This book helped me a lot.

When I did finally find a good composition I discovered that I had no easel! Is this senility slowly creeping up on me? Is this a portrait of the artist in decay? I chose a very down to earth solution and sat on the grass.

As I painted, the frail cherry blossom began to fall like snowflakes all over me: on my paper, on my palette and in my water bucket – where it subsequently got stuck on my brush. 

I had to shake myself down when I got up. This is part of what it means to be a plein air painter; an intimacy with your subject that is a true oneness.

Painting the cherry blossom, as I said before, is a challenge and the best approach is to throw away carefulness by throwing paint onto the paper. And I literally did this: it is a technique called splattering but it could also be called fun. 

Splattering is a good technique for a medium that doesn’t respect timidity and reveals it’s best through boldness.

Amazingly all this splattering and dashes of blue sky worked wonderfully well. It was nerve-wrecking and exciting at the same time, which is normally a good sign, and it felt the same as I was painting the greenery and getting those subtle variations.

After this dried I added shadows, tree forms and figures.

I returned home with numb fingers from a cold spring breeze. Although when I rode back home on my bicycle that same breeze was behind me and it was blowing me so strongly that I almost didn’t have to pedal.

Watercolor painting of people strolling under the Cherry blossom trees
“Enchanting walk beneath the Cherry blossom”

I am so delighted with these two paintings.

Sometimes before I start painting, I have a vision of what I am trying to paint and this happened here.

And the final image was very close to my vision. 

What I didn’t express was the falling cherry blossom. I’m not yet ready for that challenge, perhaps next year.

Obsessed with the Changing Cherry Blossom

Watercolor painting of people strolling by the Cherry blossoms on a beautiful spring day
“Stroll by the Cherry blossom on a beautiful spring day”

Yes, I just can’t stop. It’s really amazing that I’ve lived here for seven years and not realized how beautiful the changing foliage of the cherry blossom tree is. It’s like suddenly seeing a gift on my doorstep that has been there for seven years.

Perhaps I never really noticed the beauty of the changing Cherry blossom because until last year it was beyond my painting abilities.

And now that I can paint it I’ve started to really fall in love with the changing foliage as the white Cherry blossom falls away and green leaves begin to appear. It is so beautiful.

So, I went again to the castle.

This time I met a group of drunken Japanese women. They were very friendly. And I wished that this was twenty years ago! Because these women now look like my older daughters!

They were trying to get me to eat some food which was very kind of them. The problem was that I was full and I was trying to paint a picture. It is not easy to paint with a rice ball in one hand. I took a little food just to please them.

And, then, they tried to convince me how handsome I was and I was trying to convince them that I was an old man. It doesn’t help that they are kneeling at your feet with a paper plate of food and dishing out lots of compliments. 

And here is the painting I did.

Watercolor painting of people having a barbecue during the Cherry blossom season
“Barbecue smoke and Cherry blossoms”

So in this painting there are three friends having a barbecue together. 

In reality, this is where the group of drunken women were. 

They were in the foreground and I thought that having people in the foreground in the painting would make a good composition. 

Of course, if I kept looking in their direction it might get taken in the wrong way and so instead of staring at them and copying them I replaced them with some figures from my imagination. 

I thought three men next to a barbecue would look good. I often paint a lot of my figures from my imagination.

I also draw people all the time in my sketchbook so drawing figures has become quite easy. 

I really enjoyed adding that barbecue smoke. I think it works really well.

The second painting was more difficult to do because it was getting quite cold and I was losing sensitivity in my hands.

Watercolor painting of a father meeting his wife and child at evening time in the shadows of the Cherry blossom trees
“Family reunion in the long evening shadows of the Cherry blossom trees”

In this painting, you have a little story of a mother and son seeing father coming back from work. It’s a friendly scene of a family reunion after a busy day.

What I think both paintings have is a wonderful sense of atmosphere. I can really feel this when I look at them. 

Sometimes I forget about the atmosphere when I paint because I’m so fixated on making a good looking painting. 

However, when I look at these paintings I can see that atmosphere is the most essential thing because the viewer can feel something. 

In other words, the viewer experiences an interaction with the painting.

But it is not just the Cherry blossom that is catching my eye. Everywhere the foliage is looking beautiful because you can see the refreshing green color of Spring. 

And the countryside, as you’d expect, is especially beautiful looking in this season.

In fact, it is driving me a little crazy not being able to get out there and paint it. I have that awful missing out feeling but there are family responsibilities and work.

I console myself with the thought that I have the cherry blossom trees near the castle and just this has inspired me and developed my abilities so I have to learn gratitude for that.

That’s all for now,



This story was originally about 4 or 5 stories. But I joined them together into one. They were written around April of 2014. I edited them in January of 2022.