Chap. 3 : Different Approaches

This page is part of our Composition learning module.
Photos on this page by Jamie Pye, for the Coastal Heritage Collection.

Different Craftmakers, Different Approaches

We have interviewed several Labrador artists and craft makers about how they approach composition. Some are inspired by everyday life, others by traditions and others by storytelling. See if their stories inspire you.

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Shirley Moorhouse
Carol Best
Charlene Rumbolt
Cynthia Colosimo Robbins
Pete Barrett

Shirley Moorhouse

Shirley Moorhouse is a heritage crafts artisan, fabric artist, painter and printmaker. She hand sews her wallhangings on a background of black stroud and incorporates found objects. Shirley’s inspiration comes from within, from her cultural traditions, and from the world around her.

Shirley tells us about her inspiration and her process

“When thinking of creating any work, be it a hand beaded, hand sewn wallhanging, a painting, a garden, or a bouquet of cut flowers I first give a mindful intent and prayer of thankfulness, peace, wholeness, and healing. I ask that my work help in my spiritual growth as well as the viewers. Next is intent. I ask, “What is it I want to convey from the deep within; that will sometimes strike a chord of knowing to the viewer? How can one portray the ethereal, the spiritual, the knowledge hidden deep within us? I found through patience, experimentation of material, form, and colour has helped me achieve the desired effect. Yet, still I seek.

“Inspiration is all around us. The air we breathe, the mountains and seas we have, our knowledge. Our love. Our beliefs. Our dreams.

“Sometimes the wallhanging or painting is waiting in my consciousness. Sometimes when inspiration seems unattainable I sew a random design, paint with no aim in mind and inspiration comes with intent. Going for a walk, working in the garden, making a bread; any physical activity engages and clears the mind and works the muscles. This in turn clears the channels which allows inspiration to flow.

“I sew my wallhangings on a background of black stroud. Black is the depths of a clear night, the depths of space and consciousness.

“It is a place of exploration on which I can sew my palette of emotions and beliefs. I start my paintings on an off white canvas tinged with blue. Painting, to me has an immediacy of action and thoughts. Wallhangings, with the time, effort, material and intent invested, tend for a more serious or introspective discussion.

Does she have any suggestions for checking a composition to see if it is working?

“When to know you are done and it is complete, take a step away from your work and look at it through fresh eyes. It will either have a feeling of this needs to be done/undone. This feels right and this doesn’t. When it feels whole, balanced, complete and has an identity of its own, you will feel a sense of joy and rightness. Your intent has come through as a natural beauty and its own light.”

Carol Best

Carol Best makes wall hangings using quilting or trapunto. She sometimes embellishes her work with embroidery and beading. Trapunto uses padding on the underside to make a raised surface on the quilt.

What is Carol’s inspiration for her compositions?

“I want to exhibit joy – the pieces that feel joyous are the ones I love the best. I try to make each one unique even if they are duplicates in design. I always use different fabrics or colours of fabrics, different border fabrics, widths, even different stitching on the borders. I would get bored doing the same thing over and over. Sometimes I use bright colours for the entire piece, and sometimes the piece is made with more subtle muted colours. Just depends on my mood or inspiration from the fabric.

“I have a huge stockpile of fabric. It is my vice. I always buy fabric when I travel. 1/2 meter goes along way!

“I almost always have some yellow in my finished work – sometimes a touch of yellow, sometimes one of the borders. I just love yellow and nothing seems finished until I add yellow.

Left to Right: Patience, Blanket Toss, Caribou Hunt

“I get my inspiration from photos – Them Days, websites, sometimes I just google words like drum dancer or Inuit and look at the images that come up. I usually extract one or two figures out of a group photo and use those as the models. I have done some work with the computer and LCD projector where I trace out the silhouette. I try to capture movement to capture the joy – standing with a harpoon very still but ready to thrust it into the ice, holding a drum overhead and ready to strike it, leaping into the air. I distort the image – chop it into pieces with negative space between each part or stretch it to exaggerate. Faces are usually stylized, with just stitching or lines for eyes – or no faces.

“I have a binder full of photos for ideas for the future. I would like to do a silhouette of “Giant” with his group walking behind, pulling sleds, with a point of land – spruce trees – jutting up out of the ice.”

What is Carol’s process?

“I watch YouTube videos to get ideas for new techniques. Whenever I travel, I look in craft shops and art exhibits to get inspiration.

“I use Wonder Under [a soft iron-on interfacing] on the fabrics, draw and cut the shapes, then place them freehand on the background fabric and iron them on. I use a fine close zigzag stitch to secure, and do freehand scrolls and random lines for the background. That gives a lot of movement, like wind and clouds almost. Sometimes I embellish with beads or French knots embroidery just to get an added dimension. Usually it is just machine stitching. I am experimenting with thread painting now, and I also have fabric markers now so that I can try highlighting areas of fabric before I thread paint to give more depth. Up to now, most of my work has been very simplistic and flat – I want more depth.

Left to Right: Two Cracker Berry Flowers, Cracker Berries, Em’s Quilt

“I have done a few botanicals – very stylized and only from my imagination. I like crackerberry plants the best as the leaves have lots of lines and colour variations, as do the flowers. I like combining many different fabrics with similar tones and variations of patterns in the leaves.”

“I have also done some wall hangings of faces in trapunto with watercolour accents. I use Duck canvas or unbleached cotton back ground with a thin layer of cotton batting and plain broadcloth on the back. I draw the picture to be stitched on the broadcloth and stitch on that side. The opposite side is the finished side. These are usually very muted and tone on tone. It is the stitching that makes the art, not the paint. The stitching holds the paint in areas. I like the lines in the faces of elders – smile lines, forehead creases, deep lines in cheeks and chins. There is so much wisdom (and joy) in these faces. I get the images from Them Days, but I recently took photos of elders at a gathering with their permission to recreate them in stitching. It is all machine stitching.”

Two of Carol’s trapunto wall hangings

Does she have any tips for creating a design?

“Design ideas come from inspiration – I observe always, find that inspiration in people/places/things/news stories, and then look for still photos to help me figure out how to portray the inspiration. As for the composition, I try not to rush. I lay it out and look, take a photo, make changes in the layout, take another photo, repeat that a few times. Then I line up the photos to see which composition is best.”

Charlene Rumbolt

Charlene is a visual artist and craft maker. Charlene paints mainly in oils. She finds that the process takes longer than with acrylic paint, but the paint can be manipulated longer and she is able to achieve more depth in her paintings by layering colours. She also enjoys working with Duffel and does hand embroidery.

What is Charlene’s inspiration?

“I find inspiration just in things around me – both things in the present day and in memory.

“How do I pick something? It evokes an emotion in me – something that makes me smile or makes me sad. That dictates my colour palette. Usually, for something that makes me smile or make me happy I use vivid colours, with high colour contrast. Something peaceful or sad, it’s usually more subdued or a limited colour palette.

“I don’t have a favourite colour. I do prefer things that are bold and stand out. I’m not much into pastels.

“I find beauty in many things. Some may view an item and think it’s just ordinary but if you look at it from another angle or focus on just part of it, you can view it differently. I like to hone in on smaller features – a close-up of Labrador Tea, for example. Even with faces I pull in tight on it. I find it gives me an opportunity to do more contrast and have a more detailed image.

“I use photos as reference. I usually take the photos myself but I have used other’s images or searched on line to find something if I don’t have a photo on file. After viewing an image, I’ll say, “I need to paint that”. I will sketch it first to see if I like it and if it works. Sometimes, I’ll crop it, or use pieces of it, or manipulate it – to get a stronger sense of perspective, for example.

“Lately I’ve been doing a lot of paintings on commission. Someone provides me with a photo and I look at it to see if it will make a good painting. I check for things like contrast and clarity and make suggestions if needed.”

How does Charlene begin?

“I usually play with the photo on my iPad first. I blow it up, see what I like, then crop it in. I always rough sketch my paintings on the board first. Then I pick the colours based on the reference photos but I do make changes if I feel another colour would work better. Some paintings come together fast; others take weeks to come together. I spend the most time painting portraits since they are more involved.”

What is her process?

Winter's Night
Winter’s Night (Charlene Rumbolt)

“Thinking about composition, your decisions about design are made when you choose and crop, or manipulate the photo. Sometimes I play with the photo for a while and realize it’s not going to work. Sometimes I will take things from more than one photo to achieve something unique.

“Colour decisions are made during painting, influenced by the picture itself, or the need for a higher contrast, and sometimes its mood.

“Photos are chosen based on eye. I take lots and lots of photos, but don’t make lots and lots of paintings.

“My style – I like high contrast. I did a class in school and I concentrated on perspective, manipulating it to make it interesting. I have carried that through in my painting.”

Does she have any tips for checking a composition to see if it’s working?

“If it works in black and white it works in colour. I look for what pops, and play with contrast – high contrast, low contrast. I also follow the ‘thirds rule’ when doing a landscape. I don’t centre items. When you place the dominant focal point to the side, you achieve a more interesting piece.”

Cynthia Colosimo Robbins

Cynthia Colosimo Robbins is an illustrator and craft maker. Cynthia has illustrated children’s books about local history and legends as well as community history panels.

What is Cynthia’s inspiration?

“My inspiration comes from history and stories, but not my stories. As an illustrator I am usually commissioned to make an illustration for someone else’s story. I often look at a lot of historic photos, maps, paintings or illustrations before I start. I also like to read historical texts about the time and location where the stories take place.”

What is her process?

“I start my compositions with a rough drawing (or sometimes a very rough drawing before that), and I show it to the client and we discuss changes. Then I do a pencil drawing that has the changes, and discuss that with the client. That gives me another chance to make changes and then I do the colour drawing. Once the watercolour paint is added, I can no longer make changes. The paint soaks into the paper and makes it impossible to erase the pencil marks. If the client wants changes after that, I have to make a completely new drawing.

“I like to have a curve or a diagonal in the drawing that brings the viewer’s eye into the composition. I also like to have a foreground where some things, or people, are larger, a middle ground and a background. I like the idea that the person looking at the drawing will first see the things that are near, and that the curve or diagonal will draw their eye in to look at the story that is happening in the middle ground and then the background.

“Often, I’m doing illustrations for a book or a panel and there will have to be an empty space to put text. The drawing can look empty until the text is added. The text becomes a visual element and balances the composition.

“Sometimes I have to make more than one picture work as one composition. In one project, I had to make a set of pictures that looked like you were looking out of three windows onto a cove. Each window had four frames. I had to make 12 pictures that all worked together as one composition.”

Seaview Restaurant Window Illustrations

“My colour choices are usually the natural colours of Labrador and the people and settings I am drawing. Often the colours are based on historical pictures. I’m more comfortable with drawing than painting. I’m not very adventurous with colour. I just use the watercolour paint to colour in my drawings. Sometimes though, the client has a set of colours they want to work with, or there are special considerations for colours. In the samples I’m showing here, the clients had a specific set of colours for me to use.”

Cynthia gives an example of her process

Panel text (click to enlarge)

“In 2013 I had an opportunity to do a series of illustrations that would be used by the French Shore Historical Society as patterns for embroidered panels. They use the Bayeux tapestry stitch, a crewel embroidery stitch on linen in fine wool. Each shape has an outline that is a different colour from the fill. I had to draw my illustrations as shapes that could be outlined and filled with two different colours. It was different from my usual type of drawing which starts out very sketchy and has shading. I couldn’t use sketchy lines or shading. I also had to use the colours of the tapestry wool that the embroiderers would be using.

“The story I had to tell in the picture is described in a text panel that goes with the finished embroidery. I started with a very rough drawing. This sketch wasn’t very dramatic, and after discussing it, I changed it a lot for the rough drawing.”

“The story is taking place at a French trading post. Acoutsina, a local Inuit girl who was captured by the French is teaching her language to Madame Courtemanche. An Innu family who are there to trade with the French are camped on the shoreline. French traders are loading their ship. The trading post supplied Quebec City with furs, salmon, cod and seal oil.

“The drawings shows the changes. The composition has formed with the ship as the focal point. The curve created by the line of the ship brings our eye from the wharf, to Acoutsina and Madame Courtemanche, then the continued curve of the shoreline brings us past the trading post to the Innu family at the left.

“Each of the embroidered panels had a border at the bottom. In some it was another scene, in others it was items related to the scene. For this one we wanted to include Labrador animals that were important to local trade. We experimented with them at the bottom and the side and settled on just the bottom. The embroiderers made some final changes to the row of animals. You can see how the border changed from the rough drawing to the finished drawing.”

“The finished colour drawing was a pattern – the hard work hadn’t even begun yet. The finished craft item was an embroidered panel done by the French Shore Historical Society. The exhibit had eight panels, all about the French in Atlantic Canada before and after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The embroiderers were: Ruby Brenton, Anne Byrne, Lucy Byrne, Dorothy Loughery, Joan Simmonds, Daphne Symmonds and Doris Randell. The exhibit is housed at the French Shore Interpretation Centre in Conche.”

Does she have any tips for checking a composition to see if it’s working?

“Look at it in a mirror. We get used to working on a design or a drawing and sometimes it looks okay because we’ve been working on it so long. But if you look at it in a mirror you’ll see it with completely new eyes. It will be much easier to see if there is a big area of empty space that needs filling – or a busy area that needs some empty space. I find I see lines that I thought were straight that look totally out of whack in the mirror.”

Pete Barrett

Pete Barrett is a jewellery maker and textile artist and was formerly a Craft Specialist with the provincial government. She and her husband George operate Experience Labrador Tours and the Mealy Mountains Gallery in Cartwright. Pete makes products for sale in the gallery and at other locations around the province. She is also a craft instructor and offers craft experiences through her business.

Read more… Pete Barrett – Design Inspiration (PDF file).