Preparations for Ross Watson’s upcoming Midsumma exhibition, Classic De Novo, are underway. The collection shows at his Carlton North gallery from next week before moving to Sydney for the Mardi Gras festival in February.

But if you’re interested in purchasing any of the works on show, you’d better get in quick.

-œWe’re over the moon, because half the show has already sold out. If you’d told me that six months ago, given the current financial climate, I wouldn’t have believed it, said Watson, whose vivid, dreamlike portraits of beautiful men have garnered him a loyal following.

-œIt’s been a combination of local collectors as well as collectors in London and New York, but they’ve all very kindly made the works available for the exhibitions.

The works that make up Classic De Novo (loosely translated, -œclassics beginning again) deal with the contrasts and similarities between the old and new. Bare-chested men stand in the foreground, clutching the accoutrements of 21st century life -” mobile phones, skateboards and the like. Behind them, old masterpieces by the likes of Caravaggio and van Ruisdael loom large.

-œI feel like I’m treading on sacred ground when dealing with artists like Caravaggio, and I think any artist is entering dangerous territory if they’re not respectful of the originals, Watson explained.

-œI always keep the original reference as close as I can. In the last decade or so, appropriation in the art world has become common. What I’m really wanting to do is invite the viewer to think about the differences.

-œI want people to think about the way things have changed, and the way some things haven’t. I want the paintings to provoke those kinds of questions.

Among the models featured in the exhibition is ex-Collingwood footballer Paul Licuria. Along with fellow Magpie Brodie Holland, Licuria has become a regular fixture in Watson’s works. The artist said the hetero sportsmen were surprisingly eager to pose.

-œI never sensed any hesitation at all. Brodie was the first footballer to model, and once Paul saw the painting, he asked Brodie to take him to my gallery. Paul and I got on very well, and that was the starting point for us. They’re typical of so many straight males today, where [sexuality] is not an issue. It’s so refreshing.

As well as beefy footy player types, Watson works with a wide variety of models -” from the angelic, chiselled looks of Melbourne actor Jamieson Caldwell to the wiry, playful energy of Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears. He admits he doesn’t have a particular type when it comes to choosing his subjects.

-œI’ve always been physically attracted to a lot of different-looking guys, the whole gamut of body types. The most important thing for me in choosing a model is there has to be a comfortable rapport there. A couple of times I’ve dealt with models who have a bit of attitude, and that’s instantly a turn-off.

Watson is a fast, disciplined worker, usually completing his paintings in a two-week timeframe, working six days a week, sometimes up to 10 hours a day. -œI’m a creature of habit, you might say. I’m always in the studio straight after breakfast. I enjoy that routine.

Despite the critical acclaim, the celebrity fans (Elton John is an avid collector) and the hefty price his paintings now command, Watson said he measures his success in more simple terms.

-œFifty percent of people you meet hate their jobs and don’t want to go in on Mondays. For me, when I’m in my studio, it’s a really wonderful experience. I can have many days painting where I feel incredibly satisfied and contented. It’s great that I can continue to live off my work.

info: Classic De Novo shows at the Ross Watson Gallery, Carlton North, 23 January – 8 February, and at The Depot Gallery, Waterloo, 24 February – 7 March. Details: www.rosswatson.com

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