Moonset, Tuesday, 10 March 2009

William Theodore Van Doren. Moonset from Stony Point, Albemarle County, Va. Oil on linen, 16 x 20.Saw this at about 6:15 a.m. while I was splitting firewood.


‘A Painting a Day’ and ‘The Day Itself’

The “painting a day” movement among artists was discovered by the media – including USA Today and The New York Times – in August 2006. According to the published reports, the practice had begun with artist Duane Keiser of Richmond, Virginia, in December 2004, when he set out to paint every day as a kind of discipline. As he told the Times, “I wanted to make a ritual for myself, to complete a painting in one day, every day, without any excuses. . . . I liked the diary aspect of it, that it was like putting a time stamp on a painting.”

When I finally stumbled on this bit of news, in mid-’08, I was of course interested to learn that a practice I’d begun in 1995 and turned into a series of daily paintings in 1997, had actually started more than seven years later. But I couldn’t complain – the reason I hadn’t heard of them was the same reason they’d never heard of me. As a self-taught painter who hadn’t gone to art school and who spent much of his time fulfilling writing, editing and design contracts, I was basically an art recluse. (And, my spouse would probably add, a bit of a recluse in general.)

Just as the painting-a-day movement allowed me to feel a certain kinship with some of my peers, it also provides a foil to this series – to painting, not just ON every day but painting something OF every day. 

Most of my sunsets are painted the same day, at sunset. Every one, regardless of when it’s painted, is done “in real time” – in more or less the time it takes to watch a sunset. Just as Keiser started by wanting to find a certain discipline, I began painting sunsets both for the ritual of going out and painting every day, and to discipline myself to paint more freely – to paint each day’s sky alla prima and accept the result as finished, no matter whether I felt it was awkward or stunning. Up to this point, I was likely to spend months if not years on a single canvas.

Ultimately I think that painting the sky daily at a certain time is one of a truly infinite number of ways to submerge one’s artistic ego in something much greater, in order to find a connection with that something. It could be sunsets, it could be paint splatters, it could be trees, or straight lines, the way in could be anything.

I started the series worrying that painting the sunset every day was probably kind of dumb – and even though I never stopped worrying, I also never stopped painting. In the process maybe I managed to outsmart myself. I kept doing it even if I didn’t know why or even if, as was often the case, I didn’t feel like it.

One of the more instructive developments took hold when I decided I would paint the sunset every day for at least a year. That’s when I realized that I wanted all the paintings to be the same size (14 x 18 then, currently 16 x 20). This meant that if they were displayed, perhaps calendar-like, on a wall, there would be no distractions caused by changes in dimensions – just the changes over time. Hanging the paintings like a calendar is to see not the dates, but the actual days – a very strange, almost disturbing feeling. There’s a mystery here involving the observance of time and perhaps, paradoxically, a certain freedom from it. Somewhere in that mystery lies “The Day Itself.” 


Southwest Mountains (9 June 2004)

Conté crayon on paper, 4 x 6.This was done on the trail with Flint the foxhound, which usually means one has only a minute or so before Flint becomes irked by the evidence that you’re not really serious about helping him find deer and foxes to chase. (Which wouldn’t matter except that an indignant hound becomes much more difficult to direct off leash.) And this was about a one-minute sketch as I stood in what we call the Power Line Road – that’s the eroded track to the right of the fence – facing the Southwest Mountains.

The Southwest Mountains are a chain of small peaks to our east, parallel to the Blue Ridge. I believe they may have gotten their name because – just like almost every other range in the entire Appalachians – they run from northeast to southwest, and these would have been the first mountains encountered by colonists moving west through the Piedmont. This view is from about a mile or so east of where I do most of my sunrises, and these are the mountains you can see in many of those sunrise paintings.

If you’re half as fanatical about geography as I am, you might like to know that the area known as Stony Point lies on this side of the mountains, with Barboursville off to the left. Over the mountains: Keswick and Cismont. If you were to turn perhaps 30 degrees to the right, you’d be facing toward Shadwell and Monticello.

Along with Monticello there’s a sad thing – a big hill – called Pantops Mountain. Where Monticello has been celebrated and preserved, Pantops, just across the way, has been repeatedly paved until it’s basically like a shaved head. It’s the home of car dealerships, shopping centers and office parks, with most of the construction seemingly designed to take out the maximum amount of natural vegetation. Monticello and Pantops, I think, reflect a kind of split personality in our area, and I sometimes imagine the two mountains having conversations just trying to figure the whole thing out. Usually in these scenarios, Monticello proves to be too aristocratic to empathize very much with poor little Pantops’s plight.

John, hope you had a nice 37th birthday.


Oak Leaf (24 May 2004)

Conté crayon on paper, 4 x 6.This may have been a blackjack oak (which I only recently learned to recognize) and I simply left out the fine details. On a walk with Flint.


Note on the Sunset Paintings (10 January 1998)

After I painted the sunset I felt I should have known better and taken the freedom to paint it more loosely, or at least to change the scale and not paint the same frame over and over. That I could have made it as alive as some of the others, some of the ‘better’ ones.

Yet the ordinariness of [some of] the paintings is part of what they’re about, they’re a series of sketches rather than individual finished worked-out creations, their underlying narrative quality is at least as important as their immediately apparent value as paintings. Their art is partly in their existence – their reality in time. To worry about the aesthetic qualities of any particular one goes against their aesthetic. The repetition of scale and of framing establishes the change in time. Only the time changes, the world is the same template every day, without color, without form, with only the broadest outside outline, the presumed rectangle of vision. What’s happening here is not painting it’s observance. Not observation. Not attempted brilliance. Surrender. It’s a routine interaction – sacred, simple, incomprehensible, implicit, routine – like prayer. Prayer doesn’t reinvent itself every day. Prayer doesn’t perform a backflip. If I do produce something wonderful, I’ll take it. But in this case the work lies somewhere between the image and the subject that inspired it.


The Green Barn (17 May 1984)

Breathing in and out the bird’s song
I sat on the wooden step
Four miles below the sun
Within the mown fields
Of middle May.

Breathing in and out the bird itself as he was singing
I sat on the sun-warped step
Exchanging atmospheres
With middle May
And acres of grass.

I am he who sits in middle May, deciding
To write.

On the fourth anniversary exactly
Of my father’s death
A heart attack at fifty-three
I now thirty-five begin again
Knowing that we never cease.

I of course remember the day
At age fifteen
I set out to paint on canvasboard the local barn,
The green barn
Newly painted
In the orchard hills.

The apple trees were years removed
Shoulders of earth showed hollows and curves
And waves of grass I climbed to meet,
Breasting them with canvasboard.

I tried to paint that green barn.
I used a palette knife.
The greens I made seemed repulsive to me – they were for the green fields, the green of the barn would be impossible without the right green of the flowing fields –
I painted in a sweat
I felt in despair the flowing fields were falling, slipping, even running away with every stroke,
With sweat, sun, bees, greens, no-good greens and so much desperate humid heat and sweat and sun I walked home,
I walked home, balancing the plastered board over barbed wire and gullies and through honeysuckle and under branches until
In the desolate back yard of Dad’s eternally half-finished patio and half-finished hull of a boat (he’d work on it seven more years before selling it not quite completed),
I scraped it all off.

Never again.


Never again the scraping doubt.
I wish I had that painting today,
I could make it right.
I could make it fourteen million different ways,
In oil, watercolor, pencil or pastel –

Or, like this:

The green barn,
Once a red barn,
Now a gold barn in the summer light,
A gold barn filled with silver blue,
The green barn painted sunlight green over gold and violet reflections,
Floats in the fire green, the sky green, the hard green, white, yellow and wet flowering and dry green
In the me green, heart green, hands and eyes green or turning green,
In the bird and turtle green,
Red and violet and gold.