Monday, 7 December 2009

Los Arapiles

Across the Castillan planes of the Inner Plateau of the Iberian Peninsula, hills spring sporadically from the flat grassland and low Holm Oak forests. Mini-mesetas on the great surface of the Meseta Central, a plateau whose surface covers a large area of northern Spain and whose elevation varies between 610 and 760 m. These hills stand alone or in groups of two or three, defying erosion and encroaching upon the dominion of the sky.

15 km south of the historic city of Salamanca in northwestern Spain are situated two such hills: the Arapiles, just outside the urbanizaciĆ³n where I live (below the sun on the right-hand side of the photo above) they have become a popular subject for my landscape paintings.

In 1812 they were chosen by the Duke of Wellington as an opportune place to attack an over-stretched French army and win the most impressive military sucess of his career. It was a key turning point in the Peninsular War, a war which played a major part in Napolean's downfall. In the Battle of Salamanca about 13,000 French, 3,129 British, 2,038 Portuguese and 6 Spanish died between these two hills.

The battleground remains as it was 200 years ago and is largely unnoticed by most tourists and disregarded by most Charros (the name for people from Salamanca). I happen to live almost in the next field so over the six years I have lived here I have often walked between the two hills and up the big hill (there is a monument on top). I have sketched and painted the Arapiles many times, they are really quite difficult as there is not much to them: two lumps on the horizon from a compositional aspect. I have seen them cycle through the seasons and weather conditions, at dawn and dusk and under the bright midday sun. In this way they continually surprise me with their ability for expression.

Here are two square format paintings of the Arapiles. I did the summery one first and was happy with the blocks of colour and the harmony they brought to the composition. I did it in acrylics and had originally intended to paint in oils on top to add texture but was so pleased with how it looked with the yellow ochre under painting showing through, I decided to stop there.

In the stormy painting I was originally trying to imitate the success of the summery painting on a slightly bigger scale and with a cloudy sky to express more complex pensive emotions. However, the result was a very artificial cubic rendering.
I left it on my wall for a year, contemplating its failures, until I had the idea of using translucent glazes of paint to give a complex depth to the earth and a luminosity to the sky. I painted it upside down, keeping in mind Rothko's bands of colour, some of the ochre in the earth ran up into the sky and gave it that final touch.

For more information of the Battle of Salamanca, and the Peninsular War in general, see:

It has maps and a blow by blow account of the battle, I found it surprisingly interesting.

For a closer look at these paintings, see my photostream at flickr:


  1. Hi, James
    Thanks for the history lesson! Also for your beautuful paintings. Your exploration with technique is refreshing and fun to study.

  2. Thanks Steven! I hope it wasn't too much history :-)


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