Gareth Naylor

Atmospheric paintings of Japan

Watercolor painting of gnarly trees by a temple gate by Gareth Naylor

Where I find some of my best paintings

Watercolor painting of gnarly trees by a temple gate
“Gnarly trees by a temple gate”

I used to think that I had to travel quite far to find beautiful places to paint.

However, after 16 years of painting, I have found that some of my best paintings have been done within a short distance of my house.

One of my favorite paintings this year is of Oita castle. Well, maybe I should say Oita Castle wall because there is no actual castle. Anyway, this castle wall is only a 10 minute bicycle ride from my house.

And the scene above is a temple gate about 300 meters from my house. 

My wife and I pass this temple gate every morning when we take our daughter to nursery school.

And on one particular morning it looked so beautiful that as soon as I got home I grabbed my watercolor gear and shot out to paint it.

I love the trees. When I look at them, I imagine ballet dancers stretching out their limbs. 

I also love the wonderful autumn colors that are still present despite it being December.

But perhaps the thing that I love most are those powerful and dramatic shadows across the surface of the road.

Truth be told, when I painted this scene I was feeling quite a lot of mental pain. Bad memories and thoughts, that kind of thing.

Ironically this mental pain helped me paint well because it induced a certain indifference to the results of the painting. Watercolor responds very well to someone who paints in that state.

It is when you care that it all goes wrong because the tendency to play safe creeps in and so your brushstrokes lack that boldness and expressiveness that are essential in a good watercolor painting.

Basically, it loses the ‘swagger’ factor.

I must admit, though, I was myself quite pleasantly surprised with how well it turned out. With watercolor it really is a very unpredictable hit and miss process.

And that quality of swagger is so difficult to achieve because it’s so difficult to be indifferent by intention.

However, you may be saying that this scene of traditional Japan is very beautiful and that there are no such subjects around your neighborhood.

So I wanted to show you another scene that is far more ordinary. It is the elevated railway line next to my daughter’s nursery school. This is not a subject that is normally considered beautiful. But in the right light such a subject can be very beautiful.

Watercolor painting of an elevated railway line in Japan
“Elevated railway line in Japan”

And here is one more scene that is even more ordinary.

Watercolor painting of an ordinary Japanese street with an alleyway
“Japanese alleyway”

In this painting, the beautiful lighting and the interesting shapes and angles make this a good painting.

So here are some pointers for finding beautiful scenes to paint in your neighborhood.

Firstly, and most obviously, look for a beautiful subject. It could be a church, a tree or even a wall.

Secondly, look for interesting shapes such as the metal framework you see on an elevated railway line or a utility pole with lots of wires.

Thirdly, look for interesting angles. In the painting above there are lots of interesting angles that make this picture interesting. You can also exaggerate the perspective which gives interesting angles.

Fourthly, lighting. Paint a subject on a sunny day when you have dramatic shadows. Also, it’s good to paint a subject in the morning or evening time as the shadows are even more dramatic then. Rainy scenes can also be good.

So I hope this inspires you and helps you to find some beautiful scenes to paint around your own neighborhood.



I originally wrote this story in December of 2014, I am editing it in June of 2022. I’m still very happy with this painting of the temple gate and I can no longer remember the unhappy feelings I had while painting it.

And, I thought I’d mention that we go to this temple in the dark early hours of New Year’s day to ring the big bell they have there. Afterwards, the monks give you amazake which is a traditional, sweet, low or non-alcohol drink made from fermented rice. It’s like a rice porridge or gruel that is sweet and watery. This temple makes the best amazake I’ve tasted; you get different kinds, some a little more watery and some like theirs almost creamy. It’s just the thing you need when you’re outside and it’s very cold.