Crossing the Alps

Across the wild alps

Across the wild alps

This piece really gave me a hard time, but it’s probably very fitting that, in mid-October, I struggle with a piece depicting Hannibal struggling with the Alps in mid-October. My losses were in paper and pencils rather than mules and men, but it seems crossing the Alps isn’t meant to be easy.

The lineart stage alone took me a week and four pieces of paper as I redrew this bit and that and put the pieces back together again. The colour was even tougher. I don’t think I’ve ever painted anything as complex as this. I’d say I mostly succeeded. Another parallel there.

Before I started, I made myself a greyscale sketch in Photoshop, so I knew where to get how dark in the final piece.

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Then I mixed some Phtalo Blue, Indigo and Shadow Violet in one compartment of my palette, some Ochre in another, and then some reddish brown from leftovers I had in my palette (probably mainly Burnt Sienna, Piemontite Red, and Sepia).  I sprayed my entire canvas with water and added a very light blue wash, then going into all the bits that are exposed to the light with extremely thin Ochre.

Then, when this had dried, I painte a rather uniform pale blue sky. The picture is going to be busy enough; when everything else is done, I’ll decide how many clouds this piece can handle.

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Next, I started painting the mountains in the back of the image. I used a pale Blue, mainly Phtalo, and painted the “negative space” around the snow. I mixed in some green to suggest a few trees further away.

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Then I went about detailing the rock-faces closer to us, with mixes of different blues (more Pthalo here, more Indigo and Shadow Violet there), intermingled in the shadows and rockier parts with different, toned-down browns I mixed above.

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I make sure never to get too dark, but more and more detailed towards the front.

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More details and deeper shadows to the rocky bits.

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I painted a thin brownish/bluish wash across the army and the space below them, to tie them in with the surroundings. The group of three men, immediately behind Hannibal and the soldier he’s pulling to his feet, is overlaid with a muddy wash so they won’t distract from the two later on.

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I then decided the empty triangle of sky could well use another mountain, plus a few bluer shadows on the other mountains, which I painted in with Phtalo and Indigo.

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Next, I set out to paint the mountainside to the left. It’s completely in shadow, and I mixed some more reddish tones into the blue.

Down there, you can already see me detailing out the rocks with a brownish wash. The colour consists of everything I have on my palette at this point. 
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Finished detailing. Not too much – I want the detail to be almost lost in the rock face later on, enough to look finished and non-monotonous, but nothing to distract from the figures.

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Next, some skin, bronze and leather.

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Outfitting Hannibal’s Libyans with warm winter clothes. Quiet there in the back, I’ll get to you eventually. The elephants go first.

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More detailing of the figures in back. Simultaneously, I determined how dark my darkest spots would be in this image – Hannibal’s hair – to set off the rest against it, and to have something to check the column against, to keep myself from getting too dark in the background.

And well, after fiddling with hundreds of little figures for hours that don’t look like anything, I needed something rewarding to paint.

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In this painting, my approach is very un-classical. Instead of going strictly from light to dark, I made sure to lay done some guidelines, shapes through the painting, forcing myself to keep an overview rather than getting lost in the details.

Like the fact that Hannibal’s sword is four inches long. >_<

So this is where the mixed media part comes in, and I mixed some dark burgundy with gouache and fixed that sword thing. Next, I added some bright colours (not gouache this time, still sticking mainly to the colours I’ve previously used) for Hannibal’s clothes. They’re too bright as of now, but I plan to make generous use of dark shadows and liquid watercolours to tone them down and add that extra punch that liquid watercolours excel at.

The shields of the men in the back have also been detailed with a mix of ochre/Burnt Sienna/violet mixes already in use. No new colours have been introduced here.

I also painted over the entire army in the back again with a good brushful of dirty water. That got rid of the little white flashes of unpainted whites everywhere, and tied them together neatly. I’ll go in later to pick out some bronze helmet highlights.

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Liquid watercolours in action, picking out shadows.
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Some gouache too, for lighter highlights, which I rarely do, but which are needed here.

The colours look off in the photograph; the original looks much better.

As gouache palettes, I always keep the plastic lids of Chipsletten crisps (Pringles-like,but Chipsletten taste better). They’re the perfect size and quality for palettes on an overcrowded desk like mine.

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The epiphany of the week came with the realisation that a watercolour that looks off is ruined, and a gouache painting that looks of may just not be done yet. That’s a concept I never really grasped. The next step will be to understand how to go on. I manage well enough with gouache in metal and clothes, but skin is not very successful yet. A part of me refuses to paint skin with anything opaque, which seems to be my problem.

Last details of the Celt’s helmet…

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And the clothes of the men in front.

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Across the wild Alps

I demens, et saevas curre per Alpes…

(Go, madman, and race across the wild Alps…, Iuvenal)

This has been a while in the making. I’m now finally happy with the lineart. I felt I owed Hannibal an epic, A3 sized crossing-of-the-Alps painting. To be watercoloured.

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Whenever I think of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, I think of the description in the novel by Gisbert Haefs. Pathos? Yes. Muchly. But on the other hand, what achievement in history deserves pathos as much as this one?

“The army turned into a twitching, bleeding body that threatened to fall apart and was held together by one iron band alone. Hannibal. He was everywhere, surveyed everything – from the back of Syros, from horseback, from a rock; where he put one of twenty collapsed men back on his feet, the other nineteen would rise; where he appeared with a handful of nuts, ten half-famished men would march on; where he sat down, a hundred men lying prone would sit up; where he cracked a joke, thirty lifeless men would cast off their despair and go on living; where he slept – but he didn’t sleep. He seemed to need no sleep. Whenever a pass had been taken, the mountain-dwellers fleeing, the army sinking into snow and ice to rest, he called together the commanders, took care of provisions, gave orders to secure the heights, commands for the next day… He was heart and brain and helm and girdle of the twitching and sore body and a god to the warriors; at one point, Hasdrubal the Grey said, “Lucky China. Against him, Alexander’s men wouldn’t have mutinied at the Indus; they’d have kept going.”

Gisbert Haefs, Hannibal. Der Roman Karthagos. (My translation; doesn’t quite capture the poignancy of the original.)

Watercolour, 2013

Faces of war

Marcus Fabius Buteo (in other accounts, Quintus Fabius Maximus – it seems the gentleman in question didn’t want his name associated too clearly with the declaration of war after the effect) arrives in Carthage in late 219 BC, at the head of a Roman delegation. Their goal: Make Carthage either hand over Hannibal, or accept the guilt for war. When the Carthaginian council is neither willing to extradite their general nor to accept the blame for the crisis, Fabius grasps the folds of his toga and shouts, “Here we bring war and peace, choose whichever pleases you.”
The Carthaginians tell him to give them whatever pleases him. He shakes out the toga and declares that he gives them war.

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Following Hannibal’s unexpected arrival in Italy after crossing the Alps, the first full-scale battle is fought only a few weeks later. It was the only battle in Italy in which Hannibal’s elephants played any role – they’d survived the Alps, and some survived the battle, but none but one survived the winter.

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In 216 BC, Rome fielded the vastest army that had ever stood on Italian soil. 86,000 legionaries opposed just over half that number of Hannibal’s army of Africans, Spaniards and Celts. On the plain of Cannae in Apulia, on a wide open field to forestall any Punic treachery or ambush, Rome meant to end the menace from the Carthaginian strategos. They advanced with a massive phalanx, meaning to crush Hannibal’s centre so that his cavalry superiority wouldn’t avail him anything.

Hannibal’s centre slowly retreated before the advancing legions, drawing them into a trap which they didn’t see until Hannibal’s cavalry, having driven off the enemy horse, appeared at their backs.

By nightfall on that 2nd of August, between fifty and seventy thousand Romans lay dead.

Hannibal had fought with the Celtic mercenaries in the centre, knowing that his presence would be needed there most to keep the Celts from routing, leaving his officers to do what had to be done on the rest of the field.

At the end of the day, when after hours of incredible slaughter it became clear just how complete the victory was, he must have thought the war would be over now, that, according to every rule of war of that time, Rome would accept his offer for peace.

Rome didn’t even let his emissaries into the city, determined to fight until it was either reduced to rubble or the war was won.

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