Australian artist Ross Watson has become one of the world’s foremost painters of the male figure. Although many might recognize his art, they might not know much about the man behind the work.
Watson, 56, was born and raised in Brisbane and studied at the Queensland College of Art.
He tells GSN he can still clearly remember the first time he produced a painting he was proud of.
‘I was about 13 or 14. I felt so pleased, it helped my confidence and was excited to start a new work and try and achieve the same standard.’
He moved to Melbourne in his early 20s, where he has been based for the past 35 years. Throughout his time in Melbourne, he has earned a living as an artist. At first, he was represented by leading commercial galleries. However, he has represented himself for the past 20 years.
He and his partner, Stephen Morgan, run the Ross Watson Gallery in North Carlton, Melbourne. The men have been together 13 years.
Ross’ original paintings now sell for between AU$16,000 – AU$100,000 ($12,000-$74,000), depending on size and complexity. His smaller canvases take a couple of weeks, with major works taking up to six weeks of his time. His hyper-realist portraits often draw upon Renaissance art inspiration.
Much of his work features men – both dressed and undressed. Many of his subjects confound notions of gay stereotypes, featuring men in uniform. Past models have included James Wharton, the former British soldier.
Watson has spoken before about wanting to highlight strong, gay role models. It remains a motivating factor behind some of his art.
‘Yes. My most recent series homines/uniformis, included paintings featuring Alexis Caught who plays football with London’s Kings Cross Steelers. I was impressed and moved by his social media posts where he sometimes spoke candidly about his sexuality and personal challenges – anxiety, self image issues.’
He’s keen to point out that although best known for his male portraiture, he is not restricted by gender.
‘I have painted number of women, the last was the Australian/French singer Tina Arena. Her’s is a major portrait which includes a very beautiful sculpture which I saw in the Louvre Museum, and I’m pleased now hangs in a public gallery – The Gold Coast City Gallery.’
Another celebrity he was particularly delighted to paint was the actor, writer and broadcaster, Stephen Fry.
‘I’ve had a huge admiration and respect for Stephen Fry for years, and so to paint him for my last London exhibition was a great honour. Along with Sir Elton John, he has been a terrific supporter of my art and career.’
How does he find his models? And is there a look or attitude that’s likely to capture his eye?
‘I value getting to know the person a bit before they model, as years back there were one or two who had an unattractive attitude when we met. There is no particular look. I have painted various looks and nationalities.’
Gay life in Australia
Despite Australia having a thriving gay scene and hosting one of the biggest LGBTI celebrations in the world (Sydney Mardi Gras), it only introduced same-sex marriage this year. Watson welcomed the law change. He says the country is progressive and remains far ahead of others in terms of equality legislation. However, he’s not thinking about taking advantage of the new legislation himself.
‘When you look at history, social change takes as long as it needs to take. Australia has had various anti-discrimination legislation, which some countries who introduced marriage equality years ago, continue without.
‘Though we believe marriage is a right for everyone, for my partner Stephen and myself we view marriage as an outdated institution. Under Australian law all couples regardless of marriage status are treated equally irrespective of sexual preference. So there is no advantage to being married in that sense, unlike the USA for example.’
As an indicator of his growing worldwide fanbase and fame, Watson is now busy working on major exhibitions for 2019. One of these will take place in New York, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots next summer.
‘We were over the moon with the response to my last Sydney Mardi Gras exhibition which was my busiest ever in terms of sales and visitor numbers, and are now super excited about my New York Pride exhibition, particularly given the significance of the 50th Stonewall Anniversary.
‘The gallery is impressive, and in a great position in Chelsea on the Highline. We will include a number of my larger earlier paintings along with recent works.’