The Year that Wouldn’t Quit


It’s pretty clear, that I’m the best version of me when I’m painting everyday. If you don’t believe me, just ask my wife. Life has a way of making that difficult. This year has been full of challenges.

We started the year with a remolding job in our bedroom. We gutted our bedroom on December 30th of 2016. The room was always so cold. Turns out there was zero insulation in the walls. We ripped out every bit of paneling, raised the ceiling, did some rewiring, insulated the heck out of it, and put it all back together. Somewhere along the way, I broke the water pipe for the baseboard heat, so I had to learn fast how to work on that system. I spent two months in that room.

Once we moved back in I jumped into the biggest painting I’ve ever made. It started out as 7’x11’. I built it in my workshop. Designing how it would hinge occupied my brain I as finished the sheetrock in the bedroom. Once it was stretched and primed, my wife asked me a simple question… will it fit into the studio? “Yes” I answered “I have to cover the back door, but my wall is big enough.” I was so sure of myself. “But will it fit through the door?” she pressed.

That was the moment I realized I never measured the way IN the studio. A quick check told me no, no it would not. It was too tall. I pride myself on my building

skills and my design knowhow, this was a healthy kick in the pants. I tried the front door and the back door to the studio. I didn’t want to have to hinge it to get it in and out, even though it is built to do so. It would be a chore to do that every time I move it around. So, I unstretched the top of the canvas and cut off 6 inches. It fits now.

Working on that scale was fantastic! I’m completely addicted to it. My brushstrokes used my whole body. The painting was moving along when commissions started coming in. I love making commissions. Working with clients to create a piece specific to them is very rewarding.

Just as I got those out of the way, my wife hurt her back. She herniated a disk in her lower back. No surgery, just a hospital stay followed by five months of rest. This put everything in the studio on hold. Suddenly, I was caring for her and the kids. Our moms took turns coming up to help out. That was a blessing. Somehow, they arrived just as another commission came in. It’s been a good year for commissions and a hard year to get to them.

It’s now a little over 6 months from the injury. She is still not going into work. Her boss has let her telework, which has been amazing. We’ve had to rig up some crazy contraptions to allow her to work laying face down in bed. She has only been able to walk or lay down. Sitting hurts too much.

The last month of the recovery has had ups and downs. It’s amazing how many parts of the body can go out of whack if your back is injured. She is hoping to return to the office later in the month.

This last month for me has seen my studio time get back to normal. That has made me so much nicer to be around. The big one is still in progress and I’m hoping to get back to it this month.  I finished up other paintings started months ago. I made two new ones in no time at all. The last one felt like I was flying. Everything was working. I finished the year by painting some of my best work yet.  My production for the year was one of my lowest ones I’ve ever had but with what’s been going on and that kind of finish, I’ll take it.

Seduce the Deep

So much of my work revolves around motion.  Figures, elements, events in flux.  The rhythms of movement are extremely engaging for me.

1 Bentley Seduce the Deep

Bentley, Seduce the Deep, 48″ x 60″, oil on canvas, 2015

Though I have spent the bulk of my painting career and training focusing on the figure I have repeatedly explored still-life, landscape, and abstraction as a form of play.  The sense of play in making was ever present in the beginning.  At some point along the way that playful spirit was replaced by work.  Things became more serious.  The demands of making an income and simply becoming more proficient in making the work made the act of making more serious.  The worst blow to my sense of play came eight years ago when my best friend, Chris Lyon, died suddenly in a motorcycle crash.  He was an amazing painter.  We were roommates all through college and even attended the same grad program.  We showed in the same gallery.  His show always followed mine in the schedule.  We competed against one another, pushed each other, and constantly worked to make the other better. Then he was gone.  Painting wasn’t fun anymore. The other side of this whole story is that Chris’ and my work in college was incredibly similar.  Both of our markmaking was based on a noodly, searching, erratic line.  The marks we made would explore, lock onto the form, then lose it again.  Our paintings were constantly being mistaken for the other’s.  When we got to the grad program at Penn, we drew a line in the sand.  The line was somewhere around de Kooning.  Chris took abstraction with figurative influences and I took figuration with abstract influences.  This allowed us to go our own ways .  We remained each other’s top critics since we could see through to the core of each other’s painting.

2 Bentley The Immutability of Change

Bentley, The Immutability of Change, 52” x 60”, oil on canvas, 2015

Just before he died, Chris started to bring figures back into his work.  I was starting to let my figures give way to the abstraction a little more.  The line in the sand was eroding.  When he was suddenly gone, the erosion stopped.  His part of the conversation ended.  Mine just froze where it was. Now, it’s been eight years and I made the decision that the line in the sand must be fluid again.  When I was knee deep in my water series, my body of work exploring figures at play underwater, I started to become intrigued by the motion of just the water.  The ripples pushing and pulling against each other.  I loved the abstraction of it all.  Right away, I made a couple of paintings studying that water motion without figures.  They felt free and dangerous.  Difficult and open. I just finished my goal of ten large scale waterscapes.  It took me more than ten canvases to reach my goal.  There a lot of paintings that couldn’t be saved.  I wanted the goal to give me the freedom to explore.

To find the language of the new direction.  I still paint my figures: dancers, pillow fighters, and couples under water but these abstract paintings provide a new arena to explore. I flip between thinking of them as waterscapes or as nonrepresentational paintings.  It really doesn’t matter.  The results are the same.  Some start from a photo shoot where I’m diving repeatedly underwater shooting as I go, others start by making two dozen thumbnail drawings in my sketchbook, others simply begin with a mark on the canvas followed by the counter mark. The end result is that I get to explore the motion that I love in a new way and I get to play again.

Chris Lyon, Drying Out the Devil's Lungs, 60" x 60", oil on canvas, 2002

Chris Lyon, Drying Out the Devil’s Lungs, 60″ x 60″, oil on canvas, 2002

Bentley, Faster Still, 48" x 60", oil on canvas, 2015

Bentley, Faster Still, 48″ x 60″, oil on canvas, 2015



A Good Start

This gallery contains 7 photos.

There is nothing quite like a good start.  Sometimes having a good start to a painting can be like a springboard, launching you forward in the process.  Other times the good start creates stress as you try to hold onto the strength of the initial drawing instead of allowing the painting to develop on it’s own. … Continue reading


My work on creating a new piece or series starts long before canvases are stretched or colors are mixed.  Since I use figures in my work, I first have to gather my source material.  There is nothing I would rather do than to draw or paint from life.  The energy in a session of working with a live model is palpable.  However with the kind of stories I want to tell, painting from live models is impossible.  Asking models to hold the kind of poses I would need them to would bring a staleness to the work.  The figures would be feel stiff and staged.

Dance shoot.  Photo courtesy of Carson Zullinger.

Bentley working from ladder at dance shoot. Photo courtesy of Carson Zullinger.

Allen Bentley working with models at underwater photo shoot.

Allen Bentley working with models at underwater photo shoot.

The natural way around that issue is to do photo shoots where the models can move right through the moment.  The interactions are genuine, sincere.  My process for staging photo shoots is similar no matter if it is for my dance, water, or wrestling series.  So much depends on finding the right models and attire.  I have a pool of models I work with and regularly place casting calls to find my players.  They are given very specific instructions for what clothes to bring.  Most models end up bringing a suitcase of clothes to choose from.   A lot of the story is told in the attire.  Is it a date night?  A formal event?  Did they intend on being in the water or fall in clothed?  Choosing the right colors, patterns, and fabrics are critical to the feel of the work.

Bentley directing the action as the amazing Bryan Lathrop, who worked as Director of Photography on this shoot, makes it happen.

Bentley directing the action as the amazing Bryan Lathrop, who worked as Director of Photography on this shoot, makes it happen.

Giving directions between dives.

Giving directions between dives.

The photo shoots have been small with just one couple and me behind the camera to a dozen models, assistants, other photographers all working on a tight schedule.  The shoots over the years have taken on the feel of making a small film.  There are lights, ladders or scaffolds, and computers to haul and set up.  Trunks and bags of gear are carried up in to dance studios or around the back of the YMCA to their pool.  Storyboards are made in advance to guide the actions.  I direct the models to try a move again that we found through the process of working but from a different angle.  We repeat moves again and again until I feel we have what I’m looking for.

All of this is to get the shot to make a painting to tell my story.  I love the whole process.  There is an energy on the day of the shoot that I carry with me back to the studio.  It feels like anything is possible.


Bodies of Work

This gallery contains 5 photos.

For years I was known as the guy who painted dancers. That was fine. It was a good shorthand for what I was about. For me, though, dance was never the subject. It was a platform to speak from, a context, parameters to control an exploration. My subject has always been the connection between people. … Continue reading