Date Painting Workshop

I say to myself, not for the first time: 
"Four happy days bring in Another moon - but O, Methinks, how slow This old moon wanes!"


I reply to myself, as often before: "Four days will quickly steep themselves in night; Four nights will quickly dream away the time; And then the moon, like to a silver bow New bent in heaven, shall behold the night Of our solemnities."

Perhaps I should explain, dear reader. I have been invited to my friend John Wilson's house in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, to lead a Date Painting workshop. The train strike has necessitated I arrive a few days early, and we've been spending the time exploring the glorious places that nestle within a few miles of here: Warwick, Leamington Spa, Tile Hill and Stratford. The trip to see the birthplace of William Shakespeare, a man amongst millions who didn't write the Shakespeare plays, being a revelation that I still haven't recovered from.

But recover from it I must, because the workshop is about to start. I have positioned myself at the head of a table around which the other six participants will sit. What they will see as they look to my end of the table is me. And this:


I'm hoping that they will be able to ignore the four Terry Frost prints that are customarily on display here, and concentrate on my Date Paintings. The one on the right was painted to commemorate John Wilson's 64th birthday, but was only presented to him a few days ago as I needed it - for various aesthetic and photographic reasons - alongside all the other Dates I've made in my first year of Date Painting. And the smaller Date Painting that I made at home ten days ago is here to help with today's measurements. We are all to make a size 'A', Date Painting of TODAY. That is, 'June 22, 2022'.

Indeed, preliminaries are over. I asked each of the participants to come up with a day that they could remember. Inspired by On Kawara himself, I offered them as an example, 'July 20, 1969', when man first walked on the Moon.

Drew (sitting nearest to my right, though not in the next shot) came up with 'January 2, 1970'. He was a ball-boy at Ibrox, the stadium of Glasgow Rangers, the day that 66 football supporters were crushed to death, though the teenage Drew didn't learn of the catastrophe until he got home that evening.

Aruna, the woman sitting next to my old friend at the opposite end of the table to me, offered 'October 6, 1969'. A day that's engraved on her mind as it was the date on which she permanently left her country of birth for the United Kingdom.

John himself came up with 'June 4, 2022', his most recent birthday, which was celebrated fulsomely in this very house, amongst friends old and new, newly old and forever young.


That's Ron and Jill sitting opposite each other as they no doubt do every day of their shared lives. Damn, that's the first mistake of the workshop. I'd intended keeping the couple apart, but botched the seating arrangement when it came to it. Not that it matters.

What did I say about On Kawara a few minutes ago, before we started? Not much. I mentioned that he'd been born in Japan in 1933. That he'd been much affected by the dropping of the atomic bomb on his country. That he'd been a prominent artist of nihilist tendencies in Tokyo in his twenties, but had taken the opportunity to leave his native country when he father's firm was given an engineering contract in Mexico. His aim as a 30-year-old was to become a citizen of the world.

By the time On Kawara was settled in New York and about to embark on the Date Painting that would dominate the rest of his life, he'd visited Europe and been deeply moved by the Neolithic Cave Paintings at Bayeaux in Spain. How could modern art make the same impact on the viewer as those innocent reproductions of wild animals? Possibly, just possibly, by making Date Paintings. And, so, as a tribute to the Cave Paintings of 30,000 years before, On Kawara would begin each Today by giving it a background colour of raw Sienna or burnt umber.

This insight only came to me recently, so I'm sure I put it over in a fairly coherent way. Anyway, my six colleagues (I can't keep calling them participants) have got stuck in, and all seem comfortable at this stage of their allotted task. A Date Painting, started and finished on the day in question, but referring back through 30,000 years of human history. Game on!

I must dip into the recent past again… While the raw sienna dried, I said a few words about the colours that were available for the next two coats. Near-black, red and two shades of blue (cobalt and ultramarine). Why did On Kawara restrict himself to red, blue and black backgrounds? Well, first, he had decided to make his characters white, so it made sense to confine himself to dark backgrounds. Moreover, look in any car park and the darker cars are red, blue and black. There are far, far fewer orange, green and purple cars, and On Kawara decided to omit those somehow less classic colours altogether.

I added another argument. What colour is the sky, when it's dark? It's either near-black (at night) or either blue or dark grey (during the day). And red? Well, that may be a reference to the exploding of the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, and August 9, 1945. Who knows? On Kawara's decision-making was based on a sublime blend of principle and pragmatism that he kept absolutely private.

Jill (on the left in the following photo) chose cobalt blue. John suggested he share the tube with her as blue is his favourite colour.

Aruna wanted to make her painting red, perhaps for the same reason she'd chosen the colour of her dress. And Ron, still sitting contentedly opposite his wife, Jill, said he would like to make a red painting as well. So that was fine as he was sitting within easy reach of the red tube of acrylic. All the tubes are Liquitex, by the way. The same brand of paint that On Kawara used. Just as the canvases are the same dimensions. Oh, yes, this is an authentic enough Date Painting workshop, though whether On Kawara would have approved is something I can't be sure about. I told Ron and Aruna that the cadmium red cost twice as much as the other colours, so for that reason alone they were off to a good start.

Conveniently for me, Drew chose the other blue, ultramarine. And even more conveniently, Sheila, on my immediate left, but out of shot in the image below, wanted to make a black Date Painting. Now as I'd been envisaging a 3-blue, 2-red and 2-black distribution, given the tubes of paint I'd ordered, all this suited me down to the ground. In other words, I would share the tube of Payne's Grey (black) with Sheila.

And we were off. I didn't get round to taking this photo until I was finished giving my Date its first coat of Payne's Grey.


The next photo is the best that was taken at this stage of the day of Drew, to my right. A painter himself, he is the member of the group who has most often articulated doubts about On Kawara's practice. Interesting though On Kawara sounded as a personality, Drew didn't think the Date Paintings could live with the Terry Frost images behind me. Drew added that every time he looked at the Frosts there was something new to notice about them. Whereas the On Kawara paintings were literally one-liners. Drew was also concerned with the fact that, according to my summary, On Kawara's Date Paintings didn't really evolve over time.

It was good to get this engagement. I did say something in response to each of Drew's astute observations. I hope I said that On Kawara's idea wasn't so much any single Date Painting, but that he had committed himself to spend the rest of his life Date Painting. That this decision resulted in his oeuvre being unique, while there were any number of artists working in the areas that Terry Frost worked in.

I don't think I put it as baldly as that. It isn't my role to argue for On Kawara's status as an artist. I am simply leading a Date Painting workshop. Indeed, I suspect that the workshop is going to be a big success, and that June 22, 2022 will live long in my memory. Perhaps in all seven of our memories. That is my hope.


As John paints his blue canvas, he shouts across the table:

"I know a place where the wild time grows."

This is tantalisingly close to the line in A Midsummer Night's Dream, delivered by Puck, which goes: 'I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.' But I could guess what John was punning at.

"How are you spelling 'time', John?"

"You tell me, Dunc. After all, you're leading this date-obsessed workshop."


I am grateful to Aruna for capturing this part of the workshop in photos, as she waited for her second coat of cadmium red to dry. John and I are the very best of friends, particularly today, having shared a revelatory Shakespeare investigation the day before. Watching an Alexander Waugh video on Youtube in the morning had been the starting point. It had shown that the monument to William Shakespeare in Stratford Church had been of a merchant, with his hands placed on a bulging bag of wool. This had been captured by an early seventeenth sketch and a detailed engraving. Only subsequently did the wool merchant get turned into a world famous author, with the addition of pen and paper to the bust that was designed to look like the image printed at the beginning of the First Folio circa 1623.

Here we go… William Shakespeare of Stratford did not write the plays associated with the playwright known as 'William Shakespeare'. The latter was the pseudonym of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. De Vere's dates were 1550 to 1604. This means he was born 16 years before Shakespeare, which makes the real life inspiration behind A Midsummer Night's Dream much easier to pin down.


I listen as John explains to the group: "Studies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, reveal that its first version may have been a court masque parodying the farcical French Match (1578-1581), when marriage negotiations between Elizabeth (represented by Queen Titania in the play) and Hercule Francois de France, the Duke of Alencon (that's Bottom, disguised as an ass) were in full swing. But 'Shakespeare' was only seventeen in 1581, still very much in Stratford and not yet married, leading most scholars to date the original composition of the Dream no earlier than 1594."


There is an On Kawara-connected reason I'm interested in what John is saying, dear reader, so bear with it.

"Titania courts Bottom while he wears his ass’s head. Bottom repeatedly refers to “monsieur,” a comical (and mispronounced) reference to Alencon, who would not yield to the pressures on him to leave England, just as Bottom says: “I see their knavery; this is to make an ass of me; to fright me, if they could. But I will not stir from this place.”

OK, here's the rub. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century it was not the done thing for a nobleman to admit to being the author of poetry or plays. This remained the case until the nineteenth century, when even Walter Scott kept his name off the world-famous Waverley novels until well into his career. But, by using a pseudonym, Edward de Vere ran the risk of what actually happened. Posterity supposed that 'William Shakespeare' really was responsible for his life's work.

The parallel with On Kawara is that the conceptual artist avoided publicity. No photographs of him from his rebirth in New York were allowed to be published. And he made no statements about his art. He wanted his Date Painting to speak for itself, without mediation. Is that what Edward de Vere wanted? For A Midsummer Night's Dream to be handed down to future generations without his name and personality attached? Without the link to matters in the real world that had inspired the writing?

Earlier in the workshop I said a little about On Kawara's three self-observation series that took place throughout twelve years. The postcards that he wrote every day stating what time he got up. The daily list of the people he met and the daily map of his movements in whatever city he was staying in. All grist to the biographer's mill, but On Kawara didn't want a biography. He didn't state what he thought or felt about anything, because this would have taken away from the simple fact that he was alive. For him, consciousness was everything.

Back to the practicalities of this On Kawara workshop. I have told everyone that an hour of solid concentration will be required to place the characters of the date in their correct place and to draw their outlines neatly in preparation for the painting that we'll do this afternoon. I've advised people that they might draw two parallel horizontal lines and that the letters and numbers should go between these lines. I'm asked more than once how tall the characters should be, and I repeatedly answer that if they draw the parallel lines as described, that detail comes out in the wash. I'm smiling as I say this. And I'm pleased to see smiles on the faces looking my way.

Everyone has access to 'JUNE 12, 2022' to help them. I leave my new friends to get on with it.


As I've done this so often before, I make good progress. How about Sheila? I ask her how she's doing. She smiles tentatively and tells me she's not sure. So I stand up and take a look.


Sheila is doing absolutely fine. She hasn't rushed ahead, but has created boxes for each letter or number. The twos are all quite similar. The straight lines of 'JUNE' are all in the right place. She has had more difficulty with the '0' in '2022', but then I didn't say anything in my remarks that would have helped with the drawing of that, so I offer up a few words to the group at this stage.


What next?

Let me say something about Drew's technique. That's him nearest the camera in the next shot. He's an engineer by profession, so doesn't need advice from me about the spacing of the letters.


Indeed, Drew finished the task before I did. He used a horizontal centre line as his principle guide and put emphasis on getting correct the spacing between characters, assuming equal spacing for each. He then drew his letters and numbers freehand, without using the ruler, which may well be what On Kawara did. Nowadays I don't use a ruler for the numeral two either.


Ron reckons that Drew's Date Painting is the colour of a Milk Tray box, and I see what he means. I did say that it was up to each person to decide what to write on their 'Date' Painting. 'DUNE 22, 2022', 'TUNE 22, 2022 and 'JANE 22, 2022' were all put forward as possibilities, so why not 'MILK TRAY'?

Everybody and nobody is taking things seriously at this stage. Which is as it should be. I've told them that On Kawara's thing was 'consciousness', and that Date Painting could be a meditative process. By concentrating on the drawing of characters one feels intensely alive. That's what partly explains the fatigue one feels after emerging from a period of concentration. I'm tired now. Really tired.

Ron sighs. A few seconds later he sighs again. Which elicits a remark from John: "That's a lot of sighing going on from your end, Doggo. Are you OK?"

"Nice of you to ask, Setter. Things are going all right from my perspective. If a bit too slowly."


When Ron stands up for break, I take a look at what he's been doing. He has been doing rather a lot of rubbing out. And I did say to him and Aruna that the pencil marks do not show up as well against the red as against either the blue or the black. Why is that? Basically because red is lighter than the other colours, nearer to the tone of the pencil.

I repeat, Ron's progress is slow. But he is getting there.


Jill is doing fine. Concentration comes easy to her. How is John doing? I ask him. He doesn't answer. I deduce he is in such cocoon of concentration that nothing can break through it.


Aruna's focus, one has to say, is exemplary. I imagine John is feeding off the qualities being displayed by the minds and hands on either side of him.

I should say to you, gentle reader, that John and I go back a long way. We met in the massive quadrangle of Downing College, Cambridge, in the autumn of 1976, and that same Freshers week we became part of a long-lived friendship group. But, in certain ways, the high point of our relationship came on February 20, 1994 (I'm almost surprised John didn't come up with this date during the preliminaries) when I visited him in his then Leicester Forest East house in order to write a chapter of Chinese Illustrations of the Path to Immortality.


Above is a photo from the resulting piece, which describes John's exasperation with a tramp who was in the habit of using his conservatory as his own wee private drinking shed, thanks to a one-size-fits-all key that opens conservatories. What a gratuitous undermining of John's bourgeois aspirations! It was after reading this chapter, the second in the manuscript, that David Bowie rang me from Bermuda to ask if his '21' company could publish the lavishly illustrated book.

That last paragraph is absolutely true. This may seem scarcely believable, but there it is and what can I say? Life can be surprisingly marvellous. On the other hand, there is little to stop life being marvellous on ANY CHOSEN DAY. You just need to have the knack of living time to the hilt.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, John and I became friends when we were eighteen; we renewed our bond of friendship in our 37th year; and here we are in our 65th. That's a 47-year friendship, and 28 years since the above ferociously/facetiously anti-tramp photo. I get up and take a look over John's well-preserved (nay, positively boyish) shoulder:


How is Johnny getting on? It looks as if he is trying to prick a balloon. When John leaves the table in order to answer a call of nature, I take a closer look…


A lot of rubbings on the surface… John has used a vertical line to dictate his spacing, but it doesn't seem to have helped much… He doesn't seem to have acted on the information I tried to convey that the letters all need to be half a centimetre wide… And he seems to have shaded in the figures (why?) without first establishing their objective outline. What a fooking (excuse my French) mess.

Is this rescuable? I think it is. But, for sure, John needs a lunch break. So that he can come back to his Date Painting afresh. We all do.

Ron is the only other member of the group who still has to finish the pencil work. But even the ever-sighing Doggo decides that it must be lunchtime. We leave the table for our well-earned break. There is another table outside, shaded from the sun, which is loaded with quiche, hard boiled eggs, green olives, a dressed salad, and a jar of Branston Pickle. Before we began work, John must have thrown together this feast fit for a Date Painting workshop. The delicious savoury course is followed by a fruit salad with our choice of yoghurt, ice cream, double cream or crème fraiche.

During lunch my hay fever kicks in, and, on noticing me rubbing my eyes, John offers a tablet whose active ingredient is Loratadine. Otherwise known - by the mysteriously learnèd John Wilson - as love-in-idleness.

OK, back to work. We are all keen to get the painting bit of our Date Painting day done. Indeed, John announces that he doesn't need to do any more pencil work, that this would only dig himself deeper into a hole of his own creation. Instead, he can go straight to the white paint.

When I look up from my own painstaking work, it's to see that Sheila is working at about the same pace as me, but that John is making really fast progress across his Date Painting. It looks like, in his case, lunch has both done the trick and hit the spot. I feel a little sorry for Doggo who is still labouring away with his pencil while the rest of us paint away at the endgame.


I am really enjoying myself now.

But O…

But O, Methinks…

But O, Methinks how slow…


But O, Methinks how slow this old…

But O, Methinks how slow this old moon…

But O, Methinks how slow this old moon wanes…


And suddenly I'm finished.

Looking around, I see that Drew has also finished and Sheila has nearly done so. Same with Jill, who has decided to turn her Date around, so as to get more accuracy on the finishing touches. Ron has at last finished his drawing, and, to everyone's surprise, has zipped through the painting side of things. He thinks that by holding his burning hands above the newly applied white paint it will dry more quickly. Perhaps he is right, though On Kawara used a hair dryer at such times.


I decide to have a closer look at Ron's Date Painting… It's surprisingly competent, given the struggle he was having getting a solid drawing. And Aruna's red Date is particularly well-spaced. What about the golden lad's effort?


I need to take a closer look. John's painting has naive qualities that remind me of the paintings of boats on the sea that Ben Nicholson used to commission from Alfred Wallis in St Ives.

In the photo below, look at each '2'. Every example fizzes with individuality as they hurry along the surface of the sea, faced as they seem to be with a stiff headwind.

Looking deeper, (as John surely intends me to, he was never content for this to be merely a Date Painting workshop), I see A Midsummer Night's Dream set against a background of Athenian night that has not lost the heat of the day. Lysander and Hermia, one pair of lovers, are running ahead of Helena and Demetrius, though Demetrius is always trying to jump ahead and catch a sniff of Hermia's perfumed shift, even though Helena, the sad, hindmost figure, loves him dearly. I wonder which of his friends Edward de Vere was thinking of when he came up with that comedy of heartache.


I also see the group of mechanicals looking for a clearing in the woods where they can rehearse their play within a play. But if I stare too hard, and they turn into Titania and her train of fairies, fairies whose job it is to see that their Queen's night's sleep passes undisturbed. Oberon and Puck mean to make trouble for the untouchable Queen. But Titania has her guardian angels to look after her interests. I feel I can even name them: Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mote, and Mustardseed. Fusspots and fuzzballs all.

As for the noble Greeks, they look on and marvel, surely they do. Theseus and Hippolyta, hand in hand. Let us watch and listen too:

QUINCE: "Bless thee Bottom, thou art translated."

BOTTOM: "I will walk up and down here, and I will sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid."

TITANIA (waking): "What angel wakes me from my flow'ry bed?"

BOTTOM: "The finch, the sparrow, and the lark, The plainsong cuckoo grey, Whose full note many a man doth mark And dares not answer 'Nay'…"

TITANIA: "I pray thee gentle mortal, sing again. Mine ear is much enamoured of thy note; So is mine eye enthrallèd to thy shape; And thy fair virtue's force perforce doth move me On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee."


When I turn to my own painting, all I see are the rude mechanicals standing in a row. Fairies with their wings removed. My stiff characters lack life!
When John Wilson (note the double 'On' in his name) returns to the room (he has been putting away the lunch stuff in his helpful Kawaraesque way) I congratulate him on the lightness of touch shown throughout every inch of his canvas. But what need does he have for complements from the likes of Duncan 'William' McLaren, recently of Stratford, wooliest of wool merchants?


The completed paintings are now available for juxtaposition and photo opportunity. Below we see John's, mine and Aruna's. What joy they communicate together. Why does Puck's line "I'll put a girdle around the world in forty minutes," come to mind?


We go out to our lunch spot and the table there. Again my Date Painting and Aruna's. This time joined by Jill's. She has hastily gone back to correct the top of her 'N' in 'JUNE', because previously it had ended in a point. But she has done this hurriedly, and more work would be required to perfect it.


This is perfectly possible as we all have until midnight to improve upon our Date Paintings, if we feel the need.

What weather! Look at Drew there! Surely this is the Athenian court. And surely we are in for an evening's live entertainment. Bring on the rude mechanicals! We will sit here and we will watch whatever nonsense we/they serve up, our true selves protected by the Date Paintings we have each already created.

"Theseus, sit down. Hippolyta, take a pew."


THESEUS: "Here come the lovers, full of joy and mirth.
Joy, gentle friends, joy and fresh days of love
Accompany your hearts.

"Come now, what masques, what dances shall we have
To wear away this long age of three hours
Between our after-supper and bed-time?"


EGEUS: "A play there is, my lord, some ten words long,
Which is as 'brief' as I have known a play;
But by ten words, my lord, it is too long,
Which makes it 'tedious', for in all the play
There is not one word apt, one player fitted."

THESEUS: "I will hear that play;
For never anything can be amiss
When simpleness and duty tender it.
Go bring them in; and take your places ladies."


"Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show,
But wonder on, till truth make all things plain.
This man is Pyramus, if you would know;
This beautous lady Thisbe is, certain.


"This man with lime and roughcast doth present
Wall, that vile wall which did these lovers sunder;
And through Wall's chink, poor souls, they are content
To whisper; at the which let no man wonder."


"O grim-looked night,
O night with hue so black
O night which ever art when day is not;
O night, o night, alack, alack, alack,
I fear my Thisbe's promise is forgot.
And thou, O wall, O sweet, O lovely wall,
That stands between her father's ground and mine.
Thou wall, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall,
Show me thy chink, to blink through with my eyne.


"O kiss me through the hole of this vile wall."


"I kiss the wall's hole, not your lips at all."

Oh, Jesus, that's movingly good. At least I think it is, because the wall kissed (raw Sienna is clearly visible on the back of all the Date Paintings) refers back 30,000 years.

Certainly, it goes back 400-odd years. My compliments to Edward de Vere, aka Shakespeare.

Let me (aka Puck) put it this way, on behalf of all seven of us:

"If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearnèd luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call.
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
On Kawara shall restore amends."

Later that night, in Drew's house, on the edge of a wood outside Athens:


Later still that night, in Sheila's house that she, John and I had walked to from Drew's at the other side of Kenilworth. The irony being that Drew had shown us a montage of rock stars that he had painted, in black and white, including the timeless David Bowie.


Later still that night, in Ron and Jill's house, on the edge of a wood far, far outside Athens:


Later still in that same house in Royal Leamington Spa, but not yet midnight, the cardboard box and newspaper cutting has been introduced by Jill:


Lastly, we have this from Ron Kawara:


"Give me your hands, if we be friends,
The Buddha shall restore amends."

Lastly (really) we have this a few days later from Aruna:


Aruna writes: 'My chosen setting is in my garden with the mock orange because it is my favourite plant there. It flowers only for a couple of weeks, has many memories for me, and I associate it with June. The date was the 2nd day of summer, so ...close. Also, you made reference to my dress, and this setting is that pattern recreated, so I feel it captures a part of me on that day. I have also attached a collage with the day's digital front page - the way I read my news. Wishing you continued success with discovering more about On Kawara.

Thanks for that, Aruna.

As for me, I donated my own Date Painting to John, as I wasn't convinced that he intended to give wall space to his own.

No doubt, On Kawara would be turning in his grave on hearing about this workshop. After all, he lived and died a solitary figure in an otherwise empty room. A perspective that Jonathan Watkins, the director at Ikon, has just - warmly and wittily - pointed out to me.

1. John's words about the authorship of A Midsummer Night's Dream are largely lifted from Hank Whittemore's blog.

2. The Alexander Waugh video, Monkey Business at Stratford, is highly recommended. The trip to Stratford that John and I made was actually the day after the Date Painting workshop, so I hadn't planned any of the Midsummer Night's Dream stuff, but realised that the photos could happily accommodate such a treatment.