James Stark was the son of a Scottish dyer who had settled in Norwich. Attending Norwich Grammar School, Stark became acquainted with fellow pupil John Berney Crome (1794-1842), son of John Crome (1768-1821), founder member of the Norwich Society of Artists. It is likely that through this connection Stark studied under John Crome from 1811 until 1814 when he moved to London, enrolling at the Royal Academy School in 1815. He maintained life-long links with the Cromes, corresponding regularly and returning to Norwich in 1819, drawn by his love of landscape painting. Although Stark would settle in London again later in his career, his favoured subject remained the environs of Norwich.
Stark's handling of paint and impasto was so unique, that he rarely signed his work in the knowledge that it was stylistically recognisable. He became known in particular for his delicate layering of paint and carefully detailed rendering of foliage and light in landscape.