William Van Doren was born in Leesburg, Virginia, and grew up in Lorton, a then-rural pocket of northern Virginia. At Johns Hopkins University on a full-tuition scholarship, he studied history and English and earned early election to Phi Beta Kappa, while also immersing himself in painting. Self-taught, he began selling his work during his senior year at Hopkins. While at Hopkins he also published and edited The Diode and rewrote two very early issues of the now well-known libertarian magazine Reason. After graduation he moved to New York and worked in a literary agency while painting at night; he moved to Los Angeles and began freelance ghostwriting of books and film treatments, still pursuing his art.
During his time in L.A., Van Doren created a poster, L.A.’s Rail Transit System: The One That Got Away, that helped bring light rail to southern California and that is displayed in several museums. Van Doren’s next poster, challenging reinstatement of the military draft, was included in the national touring exhibition Artists Versus World War Three, and in 2006 was included in a retrospective by the California African American Museum. Experience with posters led Van Doren to create The Wall Paper, described by Writer’s Digest as “unlike any magazine you’ve ever seen.” In a review in the L.A. Reader, novelist Steve Erickson wrote of The Wall Paper: “The Word and the Image are one. The word is the image and the image is the word.” Van Doren ultimately hand-silkscreened The Wall Paper in five colors at 26 x 34. The issues, now rare, include one displayed by the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, California.
Van Doren’s employment during this period ranged from construction work as a day laborer, to copyediting magazines such as Popular Hot Rodding and Wild World of Skateboarding, to writing treatments for film adaptations of novels such as Five Smooth Stones and for a film to be based on the then-anticipated discovery of the wreckage of the Titanic. For Soul magazine, he interviewed B.B. King, Don Cornelius, Marlena Shaw, and others. As a ghostwriter and editor of books, he completed George S. Kaufman and His Friends by Scott Meredith (Doubleday, 1975) and ghosted The Warm-Up by Sammy Shore (William Morrow, 1984), and extensively edited Prisoners of Pain by Arthur Janov (Anchor Press, 1980). During this time, he was also selected to perform on BMI’s Songwriters Showcase for three successive years, at The Improv in Hollywood.
Moving back to Virginia, near Charlottesville, Van Doren was hired to create the regional magazine Albemarle, as editor and art director. Albemarle won first prize for design of magazines in Virginia with its second issue, with Van Doren’s painting on the cover. Among books Van Doren edited and published during this time: the perennial resource for divorced fathers, Wednesday Evenings and Every Other Weekend, by Dan McClure and Jerry Saffer; Rebecca Fuller McGinness, the reflections of one of Charlottesville’s most revered educators; and Water Girl by Melissa Jeanne Miller. In 2011, he published the first book to appear under his own name, 47 Minutes on Christmas Eve.
Van Doren has staged three performance art shows combining projections of his paintings, his original music, and projected text — U R (1985), commissioned by First Night Virginia, A Cloud of Fire (1989), sponsored by WTJU-FM at Old Cabell Hall, University of Virginia, and 100 Sunsets (1996), at Live Arts in Charlottesville.
Following several shows in Charlottesville as an artist, in 1995 Van Doren began painting the sunset. Beginning at the autumnal equinox of 1997, he painted the sunset every day, through 1998. Now he has painted every sunset since 2006, along with two complete years of sunrises, thus creating a collection of some 4,000 works and counting. In January 2011 Van Doren exhibited every sunset of the previous year in one large space, in Moment & Horizon: The 365 Sunsets of 2010 in the Baker Gallery, Woodberry Forest, Virginia. In 2010 he also began his Tabula Rosa series. In 2014 the Baker Gallery presented The Very Rich Hours of William Van Doren: Recent Sunsets and Other Paintings, which included a mini-retrospective of work from each decade since the 1960s.
Bill Van Doren lives in Albemarle County, Virginia, with his wife, Laura Owen Sutherland.