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Watercolour Paintings of a Yorkshire Fishing Village.

Staithes Beck, High Tide.  Watercolour by Helen Lush

Staithes Beck, High Tide. Watercolour by Helen Lush

Staithes - an artist colony and fishing community

Having visited Staithes in my childhood and adult years and been inspired by its characterful appearance, I decided to put together a collection of paintings of the place. Some of the paintings from this exhibition, called "Coast to Coast", are featured here, with painting tips, methods and materials used.

In the 19th Century Staithes was a thriving fishing village with around eighty boats or Cobles, the traditional local vessels. It was a tough life and many fishermen perished in the wild North Sea. Because of the topography – the village is bounded by high red cliffs – when more houses were needed they were crammed into any space available, creating a jumble of charming dwellings with some alleys barely the width of a person, such as the picturesquely named Dog Loop and Gun Gutter. The area was also used to mine alum which was used to fix colour in textiles. There are some interesting remnants to be seen left over from the industry, including tunnels and tracks. I was brought up in the area and recommend a visit – there are amazing walks along the shore with fossils to be found in abundance, masses to paint, quaint little cottages to stay in, great pubs (especially the Cod and Lobster right on the harbour) and friendly locals.

"Bridge over Staithes Beck" watercolour by Helen Lush

"Bridge over Staithes Beck" watercolour by Helen Lush

Captain James Cook

Staithes' most famous resident, was James Cook (born in Marton near Middlesbrough). He worked in Staithes 1745-1746 as a grocer's apprentice where he first gained his passion for the sea before moving to nearby Whitby where he joined the Royal Navy. The original shop, where Cook worked, was destroyed by the sea, but some parts were recovered and incorporated into "Captain Cook's Cottage". This has been the residence of a local Staithes family for many generations.

An Artists' Colony

The village was once home to a group of artists known as the "Staithes group" or the "Northern Impressionists." Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970), became the most famous member of the group; she and her husband, fellow painter Harold Knight R.A., had a studio in the village.

There were around forty artists, some living in the area, and many more visiting for several months a year. They lived amongst the fishermen and women of Staithes, often lodging with them which gave them first-hand experience of the harsh lives of the villagers; as a result, their paintings give us a unique insight into a long-forgotten way of life.

Staithes Beck, low tide.  Watercolour by Helen Lush

Staithes Beck, low tide. Watercolour by Helen Lush

Painting Staithes Beck

I have used a smooth, untextured paper for all of these paintings, because I like to add fine detail with pencils at the end.

Materials Used-

  • Fabriano Artistico 140lb Watercolour paper
  • Winsor and Newton Cotman 8ml tube watercolours
  • Derwent Watercolour pencils
  • Caran D'Ache Watercolour pencils
"Staithes Street" watercolour by Helen Lush

"Staithes Street" watercolour by Helen Lush


  • First of all do a thumbnail sketch – it's always handy to get the composition right and adjust the tonal balance with a little drawing at this early stage.
  • Lightly draw in the main elements. I use a 2B pencil for this as it is soft enough to erase easily.
  • Mix a dilute wash of watercolour using the lightest colours in the composition – in this case I used a mixture of Dioxazine violet and Raw Sienna. Using a wide flat brush lay this on quite roughly to give some texture, avoiding any areas to be left white. You can add more texture by dabbing with a sponge or tissue or applying salt. Make sure you have enough paint mixed as it will all need to go on in one go!
  • Once this is dry I paint the sky using a wash of Cerulean Blue applied in even strokes gradually adding more clean water towards the horizon.
  • The shadows and forms of the buildings are built up in layers using a less dilute wash of Violet and Sienna, with some Sap green and Burnt Sienna in the vegetation and roof tiles. Keeping your colour palette simple can be very effective.
  • I have used watercolour pencils to bring out the texture in some places, accentuate details, deepen shadows and brighten some colours.

In general, painting in watercolour involves a lot of thought and planning and mixing paint, then a mad dash to apply the paint quickly to the right areas!

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View over Staithes, low tide.

View over Staithes, low tide.

"Fishing Boat, Staithes" watercolour by Helen Lush

"Fishing Boat, Staithes" watercolour by Helen Lush

"View over Staithes' Rooftops" by Helen Lush

"View over Staithes' Rooftops" by Helen Lush

Photograph of Staithes by Helen Lush

Photograph of Staithes by Helen Lush


Staithes is not the only amazing place to visit in this area. It is on the edge of the beautiful North Yorkshire Moors National Park with it's rugged windswept landscape and steam railway. Along the coast, Runswick Bay and Robin Hood's Bay are lovely villages and Whitby is renowned for it's association with Bram Stoker's Dracula, the atmospheric Benedictine abbey and many art galleries and shops selling jet, which used to be mined locally. If you are looking for an unusual, interesting and picturesque destination in the UK, the Yorkshire coast is well worth considering, for a painting holiday or just a break.

Photograph of Staithes by Helen Lush

Photograph of Staithes by Helen Lush


Helen Lush (author) from Cardiff, Wales, UK on August 17, 2015:

Hello Alan,

Thank you. Yes I have been to Port Mulgrave - I loved it's atmosphere - quite haunting, conjuring ghosts of the old ironstone port. The whole area is so rich in history and beautiful in a poignant almost desolate way. Lots of inspiration for paintings, as you say. Love it and must return one day!

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on August 16, 2015:

Hello Helen, I like these pictures (I'm a fan both of watercolours and of 'Steeaz' (countless times I've been here since passing this way to Runswick Bay on a school walk along the Cleveland Way back in 1962). Have you been to Port Mulgrave down the coast? There's a lot of history there, as well as picture opportunities.

PS: James Cook worked on the Whitby Cats for John Walker before taking coal loads to London where he joined the Navy (17th June, 1755). He had his pilot's ticket at 21 and mate's ticket a year or two later [see right '- Seafarers...'

Helen Lush (author) from Cardiff, Wales, UK on March 25, 2013:

Thank you very much Deborah-much appreciated.

Deborah Neyens from Iowa on March 25, 2013:

You are a very talented artist. Thanks for sharing your work and the beautiful place that inspired them.

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