The ancient coastal paint palette

Creating art the neolithic way along the wild North Yorkshire coastline

It’s a blustery autumn day on a rocky shoreline. The sea is hissing and spitting, the skies dove grey and the cliffs an extraordinary palette of rusts, reds and yellows. The air is a tonic: a single blast will banish the fug in a weary city dweller’s mind. Sean Baxter, my guide, is a forthright and friendly fisherman who has worked in these waters for years. He is leading us, slip-sliding style, on a guided walk along the foreshore.

We peer into rock pools, crunch across bladderwrack and clamber over slate that dates back to the Jurassic Period. Our mission? To find earth pigments and make art. We in Britain are evangelical about the joys of the coast. We dream of white sands, roasting on our towels and building sandcastles.

We swim, we surf, we wiggle our toes, we sip lemonade, lick ice cream and hunt for crabs. But I reckon very few of us can say we’ve experienced the coast in the spirit of our artistically inclined Neolithic ancestors. Well, I’ve discovered somewhere in Britain where you can do just that. Staithes Beach fronts a cliffside fishing village on the wild North Yorkshire coast. It’s up the coast from Whitby, about a half-hour bus ride on the number 4 bus, and lies within the North York Moors National Park.

Once upon a time its narrow, cobbled streets were teeming with seafaring heroes and captains, including the famous Captain James Cook. The protected harbour was also a vital part of the fishing and mining industry: in the 19th century a railway from here transported both sea and cliff hauls to cities around Britain. But Staithes boasts another, more bohemian side – an artistic tradition that dates back to the 1800s. The painter George Weatherhill, known as the ‘Turner of the North’ was born here and many others settled here, eager to capture on canvas the light, the cliffs, the seas and the local fisherfolk.

They came to be known as the Staithes Group. The most famous was Dame Laura Knight, the first woman elected to the Royal Academy – and also official artist on the bleaker occasion of the Nuremberg Trials. Today many artists still live in the village. One, Paul Czainski, has painted an ‘illusion’ trail of trompe l’oeil works all over town (look out for the herring gull above the blue door of the artist’s house. It’s so lifelike you’ll expect it to start squawking.)

Another is Tricia Hutchinson, Sean’s wife. A textile artist who works with natural dyes, she makes paints from the ochre you can find in the cliffs and rocks here. She also shares her secrets on these quite unique and intriguing days. The earth, we seem to have forgotten, is an artist’s apothecary. But our ancestors understood this well. 15 “I reckon very few of us can say we’ve experienced the coast in the spirit of our artistically inclined Neolithic ancestors.”

What exactly is ochre, you ask? Well, it’s an earth pigment containing iron oxides. The mineral- and fossil-rich cliffs on this stretch of the coast are full of the stuff. The colours range from a golden yellow to deep orange, rust red and brown: they remind me of the Indian spices in my mother’s cabinet: turmeric, paprika, curry powder and cumin. Ochre was one of the first paints used by man.

A 70,000-year-old ochre cave painting found in South Africa is thought to be the oldest work of art in the world. Australian Aboriginals have used ochre in their art, as have prehistoric cultures in southern Europe. The women of the Himba tribe in Namibia still adorn their bodies with the pigment mixed with animal fat. The Maoris in New Zealand mixed fish oil with ochre to paint their war canoes – and stop the wood from drying out – and here in Britain ochre was used for preserving sail cloth on old fishing boats.

Ancient artists would have had to harvest and transform the raw pigment before the creative urge took hold. Back then painting meant making your paints too. Connecting with the land was part of the deal. Happily, that slow, organic way of creating is back in vogue. Our plan is to collect the ochre with Sean and walk to Port Mulgrave, tucked beyond a headland two miles away. Here we’ll rendezvous with Tricia, have lunch and make the paints. You absolutely don’t have to be an artist to enjoy this: today is all about the beach adventure and the slow, sensuous enjoyment of the doing, not the end product.

“You absolutely don’t have to be an artist to enjoy this: today is all about the beach adventure and the slow, sensuous enjoyment of the doing, not the end product.”

We’re very much at the mercy of the sea: it’s only safe to walk on the foreshore on low-tide days. Consequently, these coastal paint palette days run every couple of weeks. ‘It doesn’t matter what’s going on in our lives or the world,’ says Sean, as we set off. ‘Every day, for all of eternity, the tide rolls in and the tide rolls out.’ He’s quite a character, is Sean. Fishing aside, he’s travelled the world as a fisheries advisor, serves as a lifeboat helmsman and can hold his own with seasoned explorers and anglers alike. But put him on the beach and he morphs into a beachcomber, forager and fossil-hunter bursting with child-like enthusiasm: it’s not surprising he was recently named in a national newspaper as one of the world’s ten top tour guides.

The foreshore is full of treasure so it’s hard not to dawdle. We pause to nibble on tasty – and, as the name suggests, peppery – pepper dulse (a kind of seaweed) and run our hands over moss-covered rocks in search of jet. The semi-precious stone is black, unpolished in its natural state and hard with brown markings. ‘Hang on to this,’ Sean tells me, when I find a jaggedy bit. ‘You can sandpaper it and wear it as a pendant.’ When Sean puts a hammer to a smooth, egg-shaped rock, it splits in the middle to reveal perfectly formed ammonites, marine fossils millions of years old. We make beach-style brass rubbings of them, using muslin and bits of charcoal.

‘It’s a simple activity but you’re creating a memory that, in a way, is more resonant than any photo,’ says Sean, pouring steaming coffee for us from a flask and handing out chocolates. The temptation simply to lean against the rocks, listen to the seabirds and stare out to sea all day is almost overwhelming, but there is paint to be foraged.

The cliffs are dotted with old cave-like mine workings that wouldn’t look out of place in an Enid Blyton tale. Sean crawls into one and I follow on my hands and knees, crouching low. (This bit is optional: I was game, you don’t have to be.) Inside, it smells faintly metallic. The walls are slimy and covered with glistening, orange streaks of gunge. This is the ochre, ripe for shaving and hoarding in a tub. Outside the cave, another of our small group is scraping away at a rock, quite literally unearthing her precious bright-yellow treasure.

The walk to Port Mulgrave sharpens our appetite and Tricia, waving to us from behind a table heaving with homemade victuals, is a cheery sight. She’s heroically carried everything down the steep cliff path. During the mining era the bay here was a busy harbour, she tells us. Now, abandoned by the miners, it’s all ramshackle fishermen’s huts, with the odd boat and tussock of dune grass. Well, the miners’ loss is our gain.

The couple’s beach hut is made from corrugated iron and recycled windows, and provides a heavenly suntrap as we tuck into the epicurean feast. This meal alone is worth the journey to Staithes. There’s homemade tomato soup, smoked and potted mackerel paté, freshly made bread slathered with butters made from the pepper dulse and lobster coral, potatoes and mayonnaise and – oh joy! – boiled lobsters, caught earlier in the day by Sean.

Our tastebuds reeling, we sip homemade elder champagne, sniff the salty sea air and sigh in satisfaction. Then Tricia plonks dessert on the table: a very Yorkshire Wensleydale and fruitcake. After the meal, the ochre pigments which have been slowly drying out over the fire are ready to be ground into a powder. We use a mortar and pestle, smooth out the grit and mix the pigment with various binders: egg white, egg yolk, linseed oil, honey, resin and water. When it reaches a glossy, silky consistency, we deposit it into upturned limpet shells. Dark vermillion, burnt umber, sienna, saffron yellow: we’d be the envy of many a cave artist with this earthy palette.

Now we’re ready to experiment with our paints, on paper. There’s ample inspiration: the fossils, the hazy skies, the wild sea, the fronds of beach grass, a snake-headed cormorant on the rocks. A swirl here and a dab there, it’s all absorbing and fun. Our creations are wildly abstract and (in my case) clunkily amateur.

Tricia casts a gentle eye over my ‘painting’. It’s all about experimenting,’ she says. ‘The process fascinates me far more than the end product.’ A good thing too. Vermeer I’ll never be, but there’s a beauty and subtlety and sensuality to making art in this organic way. When I look at my messy swirls I see the muted tones but I also feel a primal connection with the earth. The land and I have created something together. In London a day and a train journey later, I carefully unwrap my paints, unfurl a bit of paper and pull out a paintbrush. But wait: there’s something missing. It’s the sea. I think I need to return to Staithes.