Capturing canines with Stephanie Sibbitt

Stephanie Sibbitt moved to Nova Scotia last year to pursue a career as a full-time artist. Since then, she has found her artistic niche and paints custom pet portraits.

With classical music playing lightly in the background, Stephanie Sibbitt reaches forward to pick out the colours for the first layer on her new painting. On the shelf in front of her workspace, dozens of paint tubes are lined up in the order of the rainbow, and a bulletin board features a sketch of her newest project; a custom pet portrait of Bradley, a wheaten-terrier mix.

Choosing to begin with multiple shades of blues and greens, Sibbitt squeezes small drops of paint onto the top of an old Becel container and begins lightly swirling the colours around until she is ready to make the first brush stroke.

As she begins working on the first layer, her cat Davis pokes its head around the corner and jumps onto the table beside her. Without pausing to take a quick break from her painting, Sibbitt absent-mindedly reaches over to her pet and continues painting while Davis leans in, excited for a bit of attention. Upstairs, her dogs Akima and Opie whine in protest at being let out of the fun.

Most days start out this way for Sibbitt, who moved to Halifax last year to pursue a career as a full-time artist. She and her boyfriend, Bernard Antinucci, made the move from the fast-paced lifestyle of Toronto to pursue their dreams of being entrepreneurs in Nova Scotia. Surrounded by animals, it is no surprise that Sibbitt has found her artistic niche in painting custom pet portraits.

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Sibbitt has been painting all her life. With no formal training other than visual art classes in high school, she relies on books and YouTube tutorial videos to learn different skills.

“I learn from other people. If I see something that inspires me from another artist, I want to go out and learn that skill, figure out how they did it and apply it to what I do,” she says. “For me it is trial and error. My drawers are filled with stuff that no one will ever see just because I’ll try something new and realize I hate it and instead of throwing it out, I’ll just keep it because you learn from it.”

The walls of Sibbitt’s house are covered in paintings of all shapes and sizes, ranging from large acrylic landscapes to postcard-sized ink and watercolour paintings, and of course, her pet portraits.

“I’m one of those crazy cat people too, so for me, the whole pet portrait concept started because I had to put my cat down. He was 19 years old and I was devastated.”

Even though her cat Calypso was gone, Sibbitt still knew she needed some way to connect with him, and being an artist gave her the perfect outlet. After friends and family saw what she could do with just a picture as reference, many people approached her to ask if she could do a portrait for them as well. “It started to turn into this whole group of just remembering your pet.”

For Sibbitt, it is all in the details. Before even bringing her brush to canvas, Sibbitt takes time to have a consultation with clients to gather photographs to work from and learn about their pet’s personalities and quirks. At the end of the day, her goal isn’t to simply paint a picture, but to capture the personality of the animal.

“For me, I’ll spend the time. I’ll take a really crappy picture and do everything I can to make sure it looks lifelike, and make sure it looks like your dog. I really try to take what they tell me about their dog, and what is important to them and then capture that.”

Stephanie Sibbitt absentmindedly pets her dog, Opie while concentrating on her newest painting. (Photo by: Rowan Morrissy)
Stephanie Sibbitt absentmindedly pets her dog, Opie while concentrating on her newest painting. (Photo by: Rowan Morrissy)

In order to achieve a distinctive portrait, Sibbitt uses unique backgrounds and props and tries to incorporate the pet’s name into the portrait to make it special for the owner.

As her business grows, Sibbitt is hoping to expand her services as well. Right now, Sibbitt does all her painting straight from photographs that owners have brought in. In the next few months, she is hoping to provide house visits.

“I’ll come out to you, spend an hour with your dog, and take a ton of pictures of your dog. That way, I get the best pictures I like to work with, and you can keep the rest.”

While her commissions keep her busy with around four to six custom paintings a month, Sibbitt is also working on custom greeting cards and drawing tattoo designs. But even with all her artistic ideas, Sibbitt Studios would be nothing without her strong communication and business skills.

“I am on Kijiji every day posting ads. I’m emailing clients and sending progress pictures to show how far I’ve come on their portrait. If I’m not out there talking to people, then I’m not getting the work, and I’m not getting the referrals,” she says. “It’s kind of a grind, but I don’t want to be a starving artist.”

Other than updating her website, Facebook and Instagram daily, Sibbitt tries to attend vendor shows on the weekend. “I hope to leave every show knowing that everyone got a business card, and at least three people are interested in getting a painting,” she says. “I love painting, clearly this is what I want to do with my life. If I could get paid every day to do art, that would be my goal. And that’s what I’m working towards.”

Moving out to Nova Scotia and making the decision to work for herself has opened up Sibbitt’s eyes to the possibilities that are available to those who are brave enough to seek them.

“It made me realize that it doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do, people are always going to judge you based on your style, or your skill. As long as you can stand up and do what you really want to do, that’s all that matters.”

Nathalie Morin and Julien Rousseau-Dumarcet: the complex world of a chocolatier

“Welcome to Rousseau,” Nathalie Morin greets customers, upon entering the specialty French chocolate shop, Rousseau Chocolatier. Fittingly, she says the shop’s name with a French accent, rolling the “R” and deepening her voice.

“Welcome to Rousseau,” Nathalie Morin greets customers, upon entering the specialty French chocolate shop, Rousseau Chocolatier. Fittingly, she says the shop’s name with a French accent, rolling the “R” and deepening her voice.

The small shop is clean, bright and cozy, in a minimalistic sort of way. One wall is accented with warm wood, the other walls are painted white. Wooden shelves hold a small number of other products like chocolate bars and specialty caramels.

It smells, aptly, like chocolate. However, it’s not a sugary, sweet scent. It’s a deep, cocoa aroma, with multiple layers laced with subtle hints of other flavours.

There is only one glass showcase, but it is full of at least 10 different types of chocolates. Behind that, there is a shiny hot chocolate machine and a small cabinet of colourful macarons in flavours like banana rum, blackberry and apple cinnamon.

Owned and operated by Ottawa native Morin and her husband Julien Rousseau-Dumarcet, Rousseau Chocolatier has been in business on 1277 Hollis Street since May 2014.

Originally from Roquebrune-sur-Argens in southeast France, Rousseau-Dumarcet now handcrafts specialty chocolates, brownies and French macarons everyday on site in Halifax.

Rousseau-Dumarcet left school at age 16 to find a job, and initially began working as a pastry chef and chocolatier. Since then, he has worked for hotels or in chocolate shops across Europe, and has had professional training in France and Scotland.

Morin and Rousseau-Dumarcet met about six years ago, in Wakefield, Que. Now, at age 30 and 28, respectively, and based in Halifax, Rousseau-Dumarcet crafts the business’s products and Morin runs the store front, greeting customers, offering samples and describing in detail each flavour of chocolate.

Through the viewing bay, opposite the showcase full of chocolates, Rousseau-Dumarcet can usually be seen at work, in his white and navy blue uniform.

Rousseau-Dumarcet in the process of making chocolate macarons.
Rousseau-Dumarcet in the process of making chocolate macarons. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)

He sets up the workplace carefully, making sure his tools are in the proper place. If he’s making macarons, he will turn on the oven and mix meringue made with sugar and egg whites into a second batter. Then, not spilling even a drop of the final batter, he’ll scoop it into a bag.

Hunching over the table so his face is mostly obscured, Rousseau-Dumarcet squeezes the batter onto trays covered in white sheets. The batter comes out as small round dots that will soon be, in this case, chocolate macarons. He moves quickly, filling a tray in only a minute or two.

Rousseau-Dumarcet in the process of making chocolate macarons.
Rousseau-Dumarcet in the process of making chocolate macarons. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)

When he’s making chocolate, his favourite step of the process is finishing off each individual chocolate by garnishing it with a unique topping: a sprinkle of coconut; crushed rose petals; a simple, single pumpkin seed or a more complex, edible design of pink skulls.

Out front, Morin describes exactly how the chocolates are made and has detailed description for each flavour on display.

The peanut butter cranberry is a “a reminder of those PB and J days, it’ll take you back, its comfort food;” the orange balsamic caramel was inspired by fresh, tangy summer salads; and the lemon ganache has been described as “lemon meringue pie dipped in chocolate.”

Morin describes a product to a customer. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)
Morin describes a product to a customer. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)

As for how much chocolate they eat themselves? Morin says they each eat only one chocolate per week, and both name the lemon ganache as their favourite flavour.

“When you work with chocolate all day everyday, you just don’t crave it as much,” she says.

Morin and Rousseau-Dumarcet spend seven days a week in their store, usually from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., and will occasionally take one day off every two weeks. They do not have any employees.

Other than Rousseau, there are a couple other chocolate shops in the Halifax area specializing in handmade chocolates.

Besides creating confections for the shop on site, Rousseau Chocolatier also provides products to several hotels and businesses in Halifax, takes custom orders and caters for events. A gift box of 12 chocolates can be bought for $19.

Both owners say their business is unique because of the simplicity and specialty of the products and their freshness.

“We are definitely a specialty store,” says Morin. “We try not to spread ourselves too thin by offering pastries and all these different types of products.”

As well, ingredients like chillies and sea salt are purchased from local farmers’ markets, maple from Acadian Maple Products, rose petals from the Annapolis Valley and other ingredients from a New Brunswick based distribution company called Dolphin Village.

Morin prepares a specialty hot chocolate made of 2% milk, cocoa, cream, dark chocolate and a hint of white chocolate for sweetness. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)
Morin prepares a specialty hot chocolate made of 2% milk, cocoa, cream, dark chocolate and a hint of white chocolate for sweetness. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)

For the two entrepreneurs, who had been planning, doing paper work and researching Halifax for two years prior to moving, the preparation stage of the business plan was the most stressful. However, Morin says they were motivated to keep going through this initial struggle.

“We’ve been waiting for this for years,” she said, “so it made sense to push through it as much as we could.”

“It is very difficult when you start, because all the money you put in the business is your money, it comes from your pocket. So if I failed, I lost everything,” says Rousseau-Dumarcet. “It’s very stressful, but after, when you see the business grow, it’s amazing. It’s like a little baby.”

For French born Rousseau-Dumarcet, finding a suitable location to establish his first business was the greatest concern.

“I liked a good quality of life and all my life I lived near the Mediterranean, so when we moved to Canada I wanted to be close to the water,” he says.

“We wanted to be able to enjoy life,” says Morin.

Halifax won against their other choice, Vancouver, because it is more affordable, there was less competition and is located closer to both Morin and Rousseau-Dumarcet’s families.

Nathalie Morin (left) and Julien Rousseau-Dumarcet (right), co-owners of Rousseau Chocolatier. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)
Nathalie Morin (left) and Julien Rousseau-Dumarcet (right), co-owners of Rousseau Chocolatier. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)

The co-owners of Rousseau Chocolatier say their experience in Halifax so far has been positive.

“It’s amazing. We work for our future,” says Rousseau-Dumarcet. “It’s really nice to have our own business.”

“People generally love the story, two people meeting and creating this idea, running their own chocolate shop, and hard work does pay off and in the end we did pull through and do what we’ve always wanted to do,” says Morin. “I think that’s the romance about it.”