From painting Margaret Thatcher's kitchen to portraits of celebrities, Ross Watson has come a long way, writes Vanessa Murray.
MELBOURNE artist Ross Watson laughs as he remembers the time he thought his most famous patron, Sir Elton John, was about to blow his top. "When he came to the gallery I'd just had an exhibition and it had sold out. He was flicking through a portfolio and saying 'Well, where's this one? And where's this one?"'
"Finally he came to one that I'd kept. I was relieved; I could show him something! But I had to tell him 'This is the painting I've kept because my accountant advised me to a keep a painting from each series for my superannuation'."
"Then I looked at Elton and he had the blank look of Edina from Ab Fab on his face and I thought 'Ross, he doesn't understand anything about superannuation!' But he heard what I said and seemed to respect it. It was very surreal," says the outspoken artist, reclining on a leather couch in his home, studio and gallery in Carlton North.
An original Watson sells for between $9000 and $33,000. His work resides in the collections of the National Galleries of Victoria and Canberra, in the National Portrait Gallery, and in several internationally significant private collections.
Raised in Brisbane, Watson, 46, moved to Melbourne after graduating from the Queensland College of Art and was soon working as a full-time artist.
"In 1984 I was invited to do a solo show at the Acland Street Gallery — that was the starting point. The only other job I had was working in Harrods in London painting trompe l'oeils in designer kitchens. Margaret Thatcher had one. But I've never had another job!"
Selling a painting to Elton John when he was 25 gave Watson's creative confidence a huge boost. "With people like that buying my work and being excited about it, as a young man it was very encouraging and sent a strong message: 'You can keep doing this. You can be an artist, and live and do what you love full time.' I had no idea it was going to be so exciting."
"I had periods of experimentation when I was younger; I think that's essential for all artists," says Watson. "I made several different bodies of work incorporating aspects of symbolism, abstraction and realism." Today his work is firmly grounded in the realm of homoerotic contemporary realism. You could say he's found his niche.
Themes of celebrity, idealism, mystery and desire recur in his paintings and photography, finely detailed male near-nudes in classical settings; often direct or near-direct renderings of the works of masters such as Vermeer, Bronzino and Jacques-Louis David. Watson likes to add modern tongue-in-cheek twists — a mobile phone at the ear of one model, a skateboard in the hands of another.