Here is Sally, an oil portrait by the American painter Joseph DeCamp. Decamp was from Cincinnatti, studied in Duseldorf, Germany, and ended up in Boston where he became associated wth the other impressionist influenced painters there often called "The Ten" (including Edmund Tarbell and Frank Benson). These painters coupled a fascination with light effects with a love of some of the older and darker tonalities of 19th century painting.
With the excitement that came with the introduction of modernism in the first decades of the 20th century, their paintings were hung less prominently in American Museums for decades. It was our loss. Happily, interest in their work is swelling again.
The Sally oil above I think remarkably expressive. Characteristic of DeCamp's work, the sensitivity to light effects is masterful. Look at how beautifully he shines a brighter, cooler white light on the woman's sailors blouse than anywhere else in the canvas. In comparison the head and neck are pulled back in intensity just a bit and are all seen in terms of subtly warmer yellows and browns.
Below is DeCamp's oil The Blue Cup. The focal point of course is the woman holding up the cup. Part of what makes the painting so emotionally satisfying is how DeCamp builds a space around her that feels like it was just waiting patiently for just this woman to appear.
See how DeCamp shines a much brighter light on the woman's closer arm than her far arm. And notice how much darker he makes the shadow on that closer arm. This a a clue he wants you to sense one arm more than the other as it's playing a larger role in activating the painting.
DeCamp injects structure into his painting by stressing the diagonal of her closer forearm from the wrist down to the her elbow. Keep following that diagonal trajectory down past her waist until you reach the crockery stacked in the foreground. DeCamp has concealed the vases and dishes in a half shadow, but that doesn't mean they aren't there to play a vital supporting role.
Moving from the top of the big ceramic vase at the left, follow the straight descending diagonal that rides down the successive top edges of the rest of the bottles and cups. It finally scoots down to the right along the bottommost fringe of the woman's apron. That straight descending diagonal was installed consciously by DeCamp to move at exactly a right angle to the highlighted forearm at the top of the canvas. Unconsciously the viewer senses this special geometric relationship. It's DeCamp's way of saying the world doesn't have to be as fragmented as it often seems. That if we're open to them, all sorts of hard-to-see but nonetheless real connections surround us.
This compositional tool crops up in successful paintings of varying styles. Here's my own oil The Reach IV that is up in New York at George Billis Gallery.
I wanted to weave together a painting about two very different times in my life. The setting is recent, done from memory of walks along the beach just below Edward Hopper's studio in S. Truro on Cape Cod. We usually stay up there later in the Fall when all the cottages are empty and dark. The moonlight then on the white sand can be mesmerizing. And the sailboat is drawn from a very distant recollection of the many times my dad would take me out sailing at night on Lake Ontario, a powerful memory for me, something it felt important to make a painting about.
As I worked on the painting I tried out all sorts of different positions for the sailboat. The one that felt right was this placement where the boat's tall mast leans to the right and created an exact right angle with the descending line of the tops of the sand dunes as they move from left to right across the painting. Could the scene have appeared just like this? Sure, but only for a moment.
Paintings achieve meaning by evoking the feeling they're after. Here I wanted to say this boat is deeply connected to the the land, each representing a powerful memory for me. Painters speak through the language of color and shape. It's a language without words, but with an expressive grammar all its own.