I love experimenting with artists’ materials and can’t walk past an art shop without buying something. But today I wouldn’t be squeezing my paints out of a tube, I’d be digging them out of a cliff.
I was in Staithes, a higgledy-piggledy fishing village clinging to cliffs on the North Yorkshire coast, joining guides Sean Baxter and his son Thomas, local artists Carol, Matthew and Tiff the collie. We were on a mission along this fossil-rich stretch of coastline to collect pigments our Neolithic ancestors used when they were smitten with the urge to record daily life on cave walls.
Tides wait for no one, so after a safety briefing we set off along the foreshore that Sean knows like the back of his hand. He’s been an adventurer, lifeboat helmsman, fisherman and he’s also a natural storyteller. He regaled us with salty tales as we skirted rockpools and clambered along rocky ledges. “The captain stayed on that ship while she broke up around him, before he let the lifeboat rescue him,” he said, gesturing towards rusting remains on the water’s edge.
We listened to the calls of curlews and kittiwakes, tasted subtle distinctions between pepper dulse and carrageen seaweeds, hauled in Sean’s lobster pots to admire their disgruntled catches (for lunch later) and searched for iron pyrites (‘fools’ gold) and jet embedded in the cliffs.
Mining our own materials
The rocks hereabouts were littered with fossil ammonites exposed on fractured surfaces. While Sean held a layer of cloth, Carol knelt and, using his home-made charcoal, produced the Jurassic equivalent of a brass rubbing.
It was then time to do as our artistically inclined ancestors would have done and mine our own art materials. “That’s what we’re after,” announced Sean, pointing to streaks of yellow and orange embedded in the ironstone cliffs. “Those are the oxidised iron minerals, the source of ochre.”
My task was to scrape orange encrustation deposited by trickling water inside an ironstone mine entrance. Around the corner, Carol was making good progress with the yellow ochre that the rocks were yielding.
An hour’s foraging gave us enough material to earn our reward. Around the next headland, at Port Mulgrave, Sean’s wife Tricia prepared a legendary picnic lunch in their fishing hut. There was a pot of broth on the driftwood fire and the table was groaning under the weight of winkles, scarlet lobsters, kelp crisps and fruit cake: a welcome feast in a natural sun-trap between cliffs and glittering sea.
Then the work began again – grinding minerals in a pestle and mortar and mixing them with various ‘binders’. Ochre mixed with gum Arabic produces watercolour; mixed with acrylic medium produces a fast- drying opaque pigment; and, when rolled into sausage-shapes with gum tragacanth, makes truly gorgeous crumbly pastels. We tested them on cloth, paper and our ammonite rubbings. Earthy colours – blood red, yellow ochre, umber and burnt umber erupted from the materials we’d collected. Indigo, missing from the spectrum, comes from woad grown in Trishia’s dye plant garden in Staithes. Those who come on the course in summer can add purple to their palette, in the form of vibrant purple ink squirted by sea slugs that live in offshore kelp beds.
We were all so absorbed in experimenting with our home-made pigments that the afternoon flew by and suddenly it was suddenly time to amble back along the cliff top Cleveland Way to Staithes, our backpacks filled with our ancient hoard.
A link with our ancestors
I paused at the cliff edge to catch my breath and take in the view of sea and headlands receding into the afternoon haze, and to reflect on the afternoon’s experiences. It had taught me something about our distant ancestors. Like us, they must have been engrossed in experimenting and producing pigments to express aspects of life that stirred their emotions, through drawings on cave walls. Our instinct to find ways of communicating through art is as deeply rooted in humanity as our instinct for survival.