“GUISE II”, oil on canvas, 14 x 18 inches, Patrice Robinson

Hello everyone. I haven’t blogged in at least a  couple of years, but I’m going to try to get back into it. I actually really enjoyed writing, which is kind of my first love. The storytelling element in creative writing is what I love so much about visual art, the ability to actually see that story and add layers to it that you just can’t express through words.

I was surprised that the many people who I showed the painting to did not know what guise meant because they had never heard the word. I mean I did choose the word partly for its mystery, but I also wanted people to be able to understand the meaning without too much difficulty.

Guise; an external form, appearance, or manner of presentation, typically concealing the true nature of something.


So let’s start from the beginning…or the ending of May. I received an open call for a Blick competition/ group show (Blick Art Materials is an art supply store with several locations across the country) and I decided to submit to it. The theme was “surrealist circus” and none of my art fit this theme. Since the deadline wasn’t until the 4th of June I decided to paint something from scratch. Why not I had pretty much an entire month to work on it, right? And if I worked fast enough I could leave a couple of weeks for the painting to dry before I had to submit it.

Now I work mostly in oils, which takes a long time to dry so I was a little nervous about drying time. I didn’t want to go through painting a whole piece and then end up ruining it because of my impatience. Luckily there are fast drying mediums out there that speed up the drying time of oil tremendously. Plus I tried to  worked in really thin layers.

Anyway, throughout the process I did a fair amount of research on circuses; modern day and not so modern. For some reason pictures and video of older circuses gave me more of that surrealist vibe. I think that has a lot to do with time and the idea that so much time between the present and the past tends to make us feel like we aren’t really connected to it. I really liked that thought so I went with it.

Doing more and more research I started putting the pieces of the painting together and making sure the composition looked appealing, fit the theme, but also was relatable outside of a circus context. I tried to dig deep and put a bit of myself into it. I did literally end up putting half of my face into the piece, but I mean if I were going to create a circus “poster” designed like one from the 1920’s (with a modern day twist) it has to make sense in terms of being historically correct. Even though it was a surreal piece meaning not everything needed to make sense logically, I wanted to incorporate some historical themes. I decided to add some cotton. I placed some cotton flowers at the bottom of the canvas and two on either side. I wanted to get across the fact that the circus was an extremely lucrative business and as far as I knew no one could deny that cotton stands for wealth. Think of all of the cotton fields in the south before and after slavery. Money was extremely important to the story.

The Wiz (1978). Photo credits to Jesseofoz from

I also love the Wiz (with Michael Jackson and Diana Ross). It’s my favorite movie of all time. And I also really like Alice in Wonderland. Both movies show the main characters being manipulated and tricked through interesting methods. The first thing I thought of was poppy flowers! Poppies produce seeds that contain opium, which when extracted can be used as a sedative. In the Wiz, Diana Ross’s character and others were being seduced then drugged by beautiful women who danced and blew some sort of dust into their faces, knocking them out cold. They represented the beautiful allure of poppies and their sleep inducing properties. They also represented death because of the red outfits they were wearing, which again relates to red poppies in particular. That also helped to tie together what I was already working with on the canvas.

What I usually do when I start a painting is cover the white (if i’m working on a canvas) or the grain of a wood panel to get a nice warm base color. I also thought doing this would look more like a stain on the white canvas and it would give the illusion of age.

I decided to add a carousel which is a very obvious symbol relating to fairs and circuses.
But I also thought how interestingly specific carousels were composed. The mirrors, lights  and horse carriages seemed significant. So I added some elements of that. Carousels were known to make you dizzy and the mirrors coupled with speed just added to the disorientation. Disorientation + drugs = circus.

Hehe, just kidding. I was nearly finished and I just needed to add some more dimension so I played with the idea of adding mountains behind the carousel. Those came toward the end. I added some pearls that I wanted to snake through and around the skull. The pearls reminded me of the 20’s and flapper girls. I thought there must have been flappers in circuses and there were. I also thought of New Orleans, which is apart of my history. I spent many summers there feeling like there was a lot more to this place than met the eye. If I imagined myself in the 20’s I probably would have been a flapper girl in New Orleans. So I gave the woman to right some finger waves which was the signature hairstyle for women then. In the black community we’ve adapted that hairstyle into a popular present day do. Modern day pearls in New Orleans can also translate into beads, relating to Mardi Gras. When I think of New Orleans I think of magic and I wanted elements of magic to be incorporated into this painting.

I didn’t just want it to look like a poster. I wanted it to look like an advertisement or an announcement. I left only the whites of the eyes even on the horses because that can symbolize blindness or the third eye. The third eye is known to be a part of the psyche that isn’t visible on the outside. It’s a part of the mind that leads to a higher consciousness.

I also used a few techniques I’d never really used on purpose, which was scraping (with a palette knife) to give texture and to reveal the white bits of canvas. I mostly did this on the hair when I wanted to add highlights. I wiped off some paint to give the cotton plants that creepy blurred glow. In some places I wanted the detail to be realistic and in others I wanted the viewer to be able to fill in the blanks.

I think that’s pretty much it, wouldn’t want to give it all away. There’s still many things you can read into this painting if you look closely. I had a lot of fun creating it, and it even inspired a few more ideas. So look out for some paintings similar to this.


Thanks for reading,


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