Ross Watson is a world-renowned figure, especially among gay audiences. His paintings and photographs often depict nudity at various levels of his male subjects but they rarely exude sexual connotations.

The Melbourne-based artist was showcased in London’s National Portrait Gallery for his portraits of former NRL player Ian Roberts and Olympic diver and gold-medallist Matthew Mitcham, an extraordinary feat.

Sir Ian McKellen, who has modelled for Watson, opened the London exhibition raising over $13,000 for a local charity. It was these two portraits that Victorian gay AFL player Jason Ball, who has publicly led the charge against homophobia in the AFL, first encountered Watson’s work.

Ball now joins the enviable list of ‘gay role models’ who will have their portraits on display at Watson’s gallery during the Midsumma Carnival, also opening the exhibition on January 18.

“I remember first seeing Ross’ portraits of Matthew Mitcham and Ian Roberts at the National Portrait Gallery,” Ball said.

“He’s painted all of my idols including Paul Licuria, Stephen Fry and Michael Kirby – all immortalised in the most beautiful works of art.

“I feel so incredibly humbled and honoured to join the ranks of such inspirational company, in such awe-inspiring artistry.”

Watson’s subjects have included singer Sam Sparro, former High Court justice Michael Kirby, actor Luke Evans plus gay porn stars from Bel Ami.

“I believe that celebrating gay role models is helpful for people who haven’t perhaps come out yet or young people who are having a difficult time,” Watson told the Star Observer.

“They’ve all been impressive for different reasons and often for the same reasons that they’ve shown a lot of courage in coming out when they’ve understood it’s not necessarily going to be easy to do that.”

But for Watson, he said his recent portrait of UK celebrity, actor and all-round brainiac Stephen Fry was the painting he was excited for festival-goers to see.

“Midsumma has become the premier Australian festival from a cultural point of view and we’re very excited that the key painting in the exhibition is the painting Stephen Fry posed for.”

Of his portrait, Fry has said he was astonished “by this wonderful work”.

“For me to be involved, to be inside a colour and texture world so perfectly rendered, so wittily transformed to suit me, and so accurate without being cruel, is an honour I shall never forget,” Fry said.

The free exhibition runs January 18-February 3 at Ross Watson Gallery.

INFO: www.midsumma.org.au

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