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Kenney Mencher knows how to paint bears!

Kenney Mencher is a former art educator who now devotes the majority of his time to painting hot men.  In 2016, at the age of fifty-one, Mencher left teaching to pursue his career as an artist.  He was a tenured professor of art and art history for seventeen years at Ohlone College in Fremont, California.  Previously, Mencher taught at institutions including the University of Chicago and Texas A&M University.

He paints the most beautiful men, not just muscle guys but bears, and chunky men too, we asked him to tell us about 10 of his favorite paintings, to showcase what he does, and of course, most of them are for sale too.

A Walk Along the Beach, 11×14 inches oil on canvas panel by Kenney Mencher

I “curate” my subject matter from social media and in this way the models I choose are often pre-chosen by the types of men who my paintings are designed for. However, even though I may be drawn to a specific model, such as this one who is beefy, hairy, and intense looking, I often edit or change drastically the images that are used as the point of departure.

For example, the image that this was based on was a full figure standing on a beach. For me, the most attractive elements of the photograph and of the model were his profile and the line that he shoulder made against the sky. That warm orange against the cool blue gray of the sky that delineated in highlighted his collarbone and arm muscles. Often, I will crop down on a figure and not include both of the shoulders are arms because after all, you can tell with the rest of his physique looks like just from a shoulder and his upper arm and part of his chest. This also allows me to create an asymmetrical composition that creates more visual interest.

I try to increase the physicality of the painting and make it feel more real by thinking about paint texture and the direction of the brushstrokes. The paint is applied in thick layers – artists use the Italian term “impasto” translates to the English word “paste”.  The textures of the paint vary across the painting.  The background is troweled on with knives and scrapers while the figure’s paint texture shows the stiff bristle brushes.  The textures of the figures are designed to follow the directions of the muscles and planes of the body.

Candy Man, 36×48 inches oil on gallery wrapped stretched canvas by Kenney Mencher

Sometimes I get something into my head and I can’t resolve it until I’ve explored it in several different ways. That’s the case with this image of this handsome leather daddy. I painted this three times already, the first two were smaller versions but I wanted to make a more monumental version of it – sorry! The other two versions have already been collected.

The title, “Candy Man,” is meant to be an open-ended invitation to let the viewer’s mind fantasize and play with the connotations. It’s kind of a play in contrasts between the rough ultra-masculine quality of the man against the idea that he is a kind of “Sweet treat.”

I’m particularly taken with leather men and leather daddies. I think in some ways it has to do with the almost cosplay aspect of leather culture and my fascination with costumes and comic books. As soon as a leather man dons his harness and cap he is transformed into a heroic ideal not unlike those that are in comic books. There’s also a kind of paradox in the leather man wearing what almost looks like Nazi or military or police men’s clothing that completely subverts all three of those ideals. I love the subversive nature of how leather culture and sort turns on its head dominant straight culture and its ideas of what masculinity and authority are.

Cigar Chomping Daddy with a Sarcastic Squint, Gray Beard and a Cap, 11×14 inches oil on canvas panel by Kenney Mencher

This is one of those quick six- or seven-hour paintings that I made using the alla prima method.  This method of painting which translates as “in the first,” kind of means “all at once,” or is synonymous with a method called, “wet into wet.”

The artist to popularize this started in the Baroque with painters like Velasquez, who would have a model sit for a very short time, sometimes as small of a time as three or four hours.  Velasquez would then quickly sketch the subject on to a burnt sienna toned canvas that was oiled with linseed or walnut oil.  The artist would draw the subject directly with a brush into this soupy mixture. Next, the artist would then wipe out some of the lighter areas so that the lighter part of the canvas showed through and then build up the light areas with thicker “impastos” – which roughly translates as “thick paste.” This method was then popularized in the 19th century by heroes such as John Singer Sargent. This was the method that I learned how to paint in high school when I went to Art and Design High School in New York City in the late 70s and early 80s.

Cigar daddies like this one allow me to smoke vicariously.  Up until I had my heart attack almost three years ago, I loved to smoke! I mean I smoked everything. I love the smell of pipe tobacco and cigar tobacco as well as cigarettes and pot. One of the things about bear and daddy culture that attracts me is the hyper masculine image and smell of a gruff powerful man chomping on a cigar. Probably my fetishizing of it started in the 1970s with comic books and characters in them like Nick Fury and the Wolverine smoking cigars. It wasn’t until the Internet came along that I really became aware that other people found it an attractive fetish as well.

Fade Haired Cubby Beard, oil on canvas panel, 9×12 inches by Kenney Mencher

One of my favorite things to paint our small wet into wet portraits or heads. This was one of the first things that I learned how to draw when I was seven or eight years old. I had a book of fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson and there was a wonderful profile drawing of him on the back of the book and from this illustration I learned how to draw heads in profile. So, I’ve always been really drawn to profile views of the human head. In high school I would come to school an hour or two early to study with Max Ginsberg and Irwin Greenburg at the High School Art Design in New York City. They would set up one of the students as a model and we would paint from life before we start our classes. Painting small portraits like this is like returning to a first love.

The subject matter is also something that I find myself attracted to both because it’s a portrait of a “cub” but also because of the fade haircut that he has. I have one collector who loves to collect most of my paintings of men with fade haircuts. He’s a hairdresser and he is often commented how accurate the portrayal of this haircut is.

I used a colorful palette of non-local color, especially in the hair where you can see blues and grays. The Impressionists were the first to work with the idea of “nonlocal color.” Nonlocal color in Impressionist painting is often the use of a color that you don’t expect to find in an object. For example, Monet painted haystacks with one side of the haystack being a brownish orange but the shadows were often blue. If you were to ask a child to paint a haystack they might paint the sunlight side as being a brownish orange but then in the shadow they would either add black or dark brown to it. This was the standard for painting objects up until the era of Impressionism in which they were trying to paint colors in the way that they actually appeared rather than a concept called color constancy. Here’s an excellent definition of how nonlocal color and local color work for painting.

This is from Wikipedia:

In painting, local color is the color of an object when seen under flat white light with no adjustment for form shadow or colors of light or secondary light sources. An example would be the assumption that an apple is red when it is actually dependent on the color of the light hitting it, color of objects around it, glossiness, and variations within the colors on the surface of the apple itself. Local color is learned in childhood to help simplify and make sense of the world. Coloring books reinforce the idea of simplifying colors. The sky is blue, grass is green, etc. when there are actually myriad variations in hue, chroma, within these areas. In order to represent objects realistically, painters must look beyond the simplifications of local color. Demonstrations of Color constancy show how flawed local color assumptions can be when the light source is has a color shift.

Gray Leather Bull, 18×24 inches oil on canvas panel by Kenney Mencher

Pornhub has been a great friend of mine! Sometimes I’ll come across a video that has some of the most compelling images in it that I just have to do a screen grab of and turned into a painting. This Bull is taken from a video in which two powerful older men were really going at each other. The sensuality, physicality, and emotionality of these two men was very intense and the sequence wasn’t just about raw sex I could tell that these two guys love each other as well.

The brush work and textures are designed to emphasize the direction of the planes of the muscles and other parts of the body.  I’m hoping that the brushwork is kind of calligraphic and adds to making the figure feel real and have volume.

In the background, I began with thin coats of a warmer gray then went over the next layer with a brush and the last layer is a kind of “skip coat” using plastering knives to create a more tangible and thicker coat in a lighter tone.

Kingpin, 18×18 inches oil on stretched canvas by Kenney Mencher

Sometimes the fight scenes in comic books look more like erotic wrestling to me than battles.

I am a bit of a comic book nerd.  When I was a kid, I would lay around my friends’ bedroom looking at comic books and eating up the images of heroic powerful men in form fitting costumes, but I remember being a bit confused when it got to the Daredevil comic book.  Yeah, Daredevil was pretty cool but I found I had a strange obsession when it came to his rival Wilson Fisk aka “Kingpin.”  Somehow, for me, he was possibly even more compelling a character and, maybe even more sympathetic, because he didn’t fit the mold of an unsympathetic character.  One part for me was that Daredevil looked a bit like an underfed prancing acrobat when confronted with the Kingpin’s large masculine appearance.  I never quite understood how the Daredevil would even be able to vanquish him in a fight.  They almost seemed to be dancing and embracing rather than fighting.

There are a couple of paintings in my body of work that I keep coming back to and considering putting away and holding onto for my own viewing pleasure and possibly for my Guggenheim retrospective that I’ll be having as soon as I become famous.

Both paintings mean more to me than any of the stereotypically “beautiful” masculine or or muscular beefy men that seem to be the staple of my collectors’ appetites.

When I had my show at the Lone Star Saloon in August 2022, I was asked which of my paintings was my favorite. I pointed towards the “Northern Bear,” and was asked a follow-up question, “Why?”

I think I answered that I love the shape of his body especially in the way it was a kind of pyramid that led to the upper left-hand corner of the picture. And, even though this isn’t too flattering, I love his pear-shaped anatomy. There’s something Frank and beautiful about this man that’s not hiding behind gym toned muscles. He’s a real beautiful man and there’s even something kind and very human about his anatomy. I also liked the cropping of the figure so that it highlighted his torso and the echo of his torso is also in the shape of his head.

The “Middle Aged Bear About to Attack the Object of His Desire,” painting dates from 2019 and I remember the day I finished it I was so delighted with the formal aspects of the painting that I put it away for several weeks before I even offered it up on my website. When I’m talking about the “formal” aspects I’m talking specifically about the color, composition, drawing, and texture.

The muted palette is something that I don’t work with as much as I used to earlier in my career. I love the warm and cool grays of this painting and how they portray a mood of overcast light in a damp possibly cool environment that sets the figure off in the foreground. He’s not placed in a bull’s-eye point of view. I shifted his head off to the upper right-hand corner of the image and I wanted to feel as if he was leaving the picture plane but that his belly was leading the way. The texture and the mark making art almost draftsman like. I feel like I’m relying less on shading and value structure and more on lines and mark making to define this figures anatomy and the mood.

For me, especially since I am in my middle-age, the feeling of this figure is almost a metaphorical or emotional self-portrait. I feel that the gray palette and slightly slumped shoulders express something about me that I can’t quite put into words.

“Strong Armed,” 36×48 inches oil on gallery stretched canvas with 2 inch gallery wrapped stretcher bars by Kenney Mencher

This painting has two titles. I don’t have the title “Strong-Armed,” as the main title on my site because someone commented to me that to them that felt a bit racist or was portraying him as some sort of criminal. In my mind that title was to show how powerful he was rather than portray him as a criminal. So I opted to list the title as “Portrait of a Bearded Black Man with Muscular Arms wearing a White Muscle T-shirt,” 36×48 inches oil on stretched canvas by Kenney Mencher

This is some of the stuff that’s at the heart of portraying people who are often marginalized by mainstream white heterosexual culture.

I often paint a lot of black men. There are a lot of reasons for me to do this, to support the black lives movement, and also because I have several members of my family who are black and not the least of which is that I find black men to be very beautiful. They are also underrepresented. Most of the time that I make paintings of black people they are bought almost immediately. I could have a sort of cottage industry in which I paint that subject over and over again. In fact, I painted the same model twice before, once as a small oil and another as a watercolor and both are in collectors’ homes. However, in the same way that I don’t like to paint stereotypically beautiful young women, I don’t want to exploit my subjects.

Painting this powerful man was meant to be a celebration of his beauty and his power but also of his struggle in our world.

You Should Take a Personal Day, 18×18 inches oil on stretched canvas by Kenney Mencher

I’m trying to take my subject matter a step beyond what I’ve been doing in terms of my gay art that features bears.  In this case I was thinking of two mature men, possibly married, in a relationship to one another.  I’m attempting to tell more of a story by including multiple figures in a more complex composition.  I’ve been working with the idea of juxtaposing a clothed figure against a nude figure and trying to tell more of a story and excite the viewers’ imaginations.  This time it’s about two bears, one in a business suit.  I wanted to go beyond the single nude or seminude figure which at times can be pretty predictable as a format in homoerotic art.

I think a lot of gay art focuses on the young pretty males, often portraying these figures just in terms of almost raw sexuality but in this case, I’m hoping to make a painting that’s a bit more original in terms of content.  First, although this painting is erotic and or homoerotic, I wanted to show mature men, not necessarily muscle bears, but real bears, in a more romantic and truer to life relationship to one another.

In “You Should Take a Personal Day,” I’m hoping that the composition helps to tell the story.  The almost split down the middle of the canvas that has the larger figure coming towards the viewer, while the other naked figure’s torso is turned towards the advancing figure and framed in a doorway which also serves to create a deeper space and pulls the viewer into the picture.  I had considered having the characters’ eyes looking towards one another but at the last minute I thought it might break the “third wall ” if both the characters seemed to be looking at the picture’s audience.  I thought it might make a stronger relationship between the viewer and the painting’s story.  I even imagined they were a third in a ménage a trois.

For info on Kenney and to see his art for sale head to:

Kenney Mencher with Poseidon Bear, oil on gallery stretched canvas with 2 inches gallery wrapped stretcher bars 36×48 inches by Kenney Mencher

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