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Watercolour paintings of a Yorkshire Fishing Village.

Updated on December 18, 2016
"Staithes Beck" by Helen Lush.
"Staithes Beck" by Helen Lush. | Source

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. 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 twenty to thirty 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.

"Staithes Beck at Low Tide" watercolour by Helen Lush
"Staithes Beck at 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!

View over Staithes, low tide.
View over Staithes, low tide.

Below is a poem I wrote in 2002, inspired by an amazing storm experienced during a stay in the town.

"Fishing Coble, Staithes" watercolour by Helen Lush
"Fishing Coble, Staithes" watercolour by Helen Lush


The houses are heaped on the soft russet hill,

Sleeping cottages, smoke-black and

Stacked steeply, snaking round

Ash paths, through Dog Loop and Gun Gutter,

Down to the sea.

Clinking boats on the Beck side, cobles and yawls.

Pipe smoke and tall tales on harbour walls.

The cobalt sky velvet and studded with stars.

The inn bright as the hushed night

Ushers whispers of Mars.

"View over Staithes' Rooftops" by Helen Lush
"View over Staithes' Rooftops" by Helen Lush

In the small of the morning, storm winds are roaring,

Chasing nicotine clouds over purple moors.

Plunging down rusty cliffs, plucking the roof tiles,

Gusting through alleys and rattling the doors.

Black dog sky over Jackdaw Well.

White horses clatter up Slippery Hill,

Snorting on windowpanes, skittering down lanes.

A gash in the sky pouring brimstone rain.

"Staithes Beck Slipway" by Helen Lush
"Staithes Beck Slipway" by Helen Lush

Electric fists punch the rolling waves,

Ripping out brick and stone, tearing off slates.

The North Sea, howling blue thunder,

Bucks and rolls, tossing her plunder.

A lemon day yawns over sibilant shores,

Quiet sea lapping on harbour walls.

Thin sun shines on flotsam of wreckage and pours

Into cottages’ splintered sprawls.

Millennial sea lungs swell and fall

Fossil cliffs clench their tide wracked haul.

The wilderness echoes the curlew’s call.

© 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


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    • DaffodilSky profile image

      Helen Lush 2 years ago from Cardiff, Wales, UK

      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!

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      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...'

    • DaffodilSky profile image

      Helen Lush 4 years ago from Cardiff, Wales, UK

      Thank you very much Deborah-much appreciated.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image

      Deborah Neyens 4 years ago from Iowa

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