Ben & Bennie

By Keith Platt Photos Yanni & Supplied

Ben Ross may have failed to impress with the results of the first online freelance graphic artist job that he won, but it did give him an idea.

The idea, a whimsical cartoon version of himself, an alter-ego he called Bennie, grew into something much larger while Ross went on a surfing trip to Mexico.

On returning to the Mornington Peninsula, the former carpenter who had also embarked on a few other business ventures (including a surf brand company with his brother), decided on a graphics-led future.

With brush in hand, he (and Bennie) have been making waves of their own, including a sellout exhibition in Tokyo they couldn’t attend because of the coronavirus restrictions.

Here Ben Ross speaks with Keith Platt shortly after completing a more than four metre high mural at a Dromana rum distillery:

What’s the mural based on and were you given a brief or told to just do a mural?

The rum mural was based on the process of rum and how it’s made. I had no clue how it was made; I just like the stuff. So, I had a sit down meeting with James McPherson the owner of Jimmy Rum, and we walked through how it was made. The brief was pretty non-existent, but it did follow something I’d previously done on the process of beer, so when I was talking to James I thought, let’s do the process of rum, and they loved it.

Did you have any formal art training?

Nah, not at all. I’ve drawn from a very young age and continued on with that with the computer and PR side of the art. I learn everything off Adobe tutorials, YouTube tutorials, books and Google. I love to read, so whatever information out there on the problem I’m having, I’ll read up until I’m perfect in that department. I have been meaning to enrol in a [tertiary] course but I’m just so busy I can’t find the time to even look at the courses. With the art, honestly, I draw and paint every day just trying to reach those 10,000 hours.

Most of the images I’ve seen of yours are cartoon style, when and how did this develop for you?

I started drawing [professionally] when my brother and I started a surf brand in Sydney. I was in America and South America mid-2019 for six months visiting my partner and having a surf trip in between. I was sitting in a hostel in San Diego before the surf trip to Mexico and my bank account was looking very grim, so I decided to jump on a website for people who want design work done. They will list the job and designers bid of the job. I don’t recommend it at all, but that’s for another story. I won this job for a yoga company in London, so I just drew myself as a caricature doing some downward dog and crossing the leg type poses.

She hated it and didn’t pay me, but from there Bennie was born and I never looked back. My vision really came alive. The soft palettes you see on my work today are all Mexican inspired: soft pastels, white beaches, blue and pink skies. Mexico was a true inspiration.

Have you done caricatures?

I base a lot of my caricatures on real people. I’ve drawn a few famous people – Steph Gilmore, and Shia Leubuff – and I’ve had a few clients hit me up to draw them as caricatures. But mainly it’s whatever pops into my head and I feel would be a perfect caricature for the job I’m doing. I’m now doing a job for a beer company and they want Aussie icons, so the bowl cut, the mullet and whatnot. I Googled 1980s photos and drew a lot of them. As I said earlier, I draw every day and there are a lot of new caricatures tucked away in my notebooks, so I have a few up the sleeve waiting for the perfect job.

Do you get inspiration from “real” people for your themes?

Not really. I honestly get all my inspiration from my head.

I’ll be listening to a song and I’ll think that would be an unbelievable picture to draw so I’ll jot it down in a notebook and draw when I get home. My mind is always moving, always thinking of what looks cool. It’s essential for anyone that wants to create to carry a notebook around to write down all their thoughts.

Has anyone ever said, “Hey, that’s me”?

Yes, all the time. Whenever I’m painting, I’ll get people saying, “That’s me”. I want people to put themselves in my art and get away from the harsh realities of this world, so I love it when people come up and say, “Hey, that one could be me”. It means what I’m doing is right in my eyes, and that also means that person is seeing themselves in my art.

I see that you had a sold-out exhibition in Tokyo, what type of work was on the show?

Yeah, that was so exciting; shame I couldn’t get there due to COVID. But, yes, my first ever international art show was in the heart of Tokyo, and everything sold. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t be there, but I did video chat to them on the opening night on a massive projector. It was an experience and a half. The art on show was an exhibition called “I’ll bring the vibes”. As Japan was going into COVID lockdown and with all the uncertainty in the world, I just wanted to put some happy smiles on the faces of Japan. My 15 painted canvases were mainly all my caricatures, drinking and having a good time. I’ll be having another exhibition there this year and, hopefully, be able to go and share a few too many with the fans.

Freehand or digital?

I love digital, but for my digital drawings I use an app called ProCreate. It’s a digital program, but is a freehand platform, so I draw freehand on digital if that makes sense. But to answer your question, I’m a digital lover. The vision in my head just comes out way clearer. I do love painting and drawing as I find it unreal to see my caricatures come to life. My dream would be to create an action figure of my caricatures. But I love the digital as you can get any colour to pop.

There has been a long line of surf-inspired cartoon characters, have you any particular favourite artists?

My favourite artists would be Keith Haring, Jim Phillips and Steve Harrington. Those three have my heart with art and I absolutely love what they come out with. Keith being very political, Jim brings the surf and skate culture to life and Steve, well there’s not much I can say, but I bloody love everything he does. We do have some really good artists here in Australia too, with Jake Ross, my brother, Kantaro, the Japanese goddess, Irvine and one of my favourites, Lee Mac, the music guru, and who can forget Lucas Beaufort. Even the Mornington Peninsula has some greats with Josh Brown and Jack Miers killing it at the moment, and the prince of art himself, Cam Stynes.

I love the art scene, and I love what everyone is producing; it keeps me on my toes trying to keep up with these guys.

Can you identify with any of them style-wise or sentiment-wise?

Sure, everyone that does pop art and the surf culture all has the same sort of touch, the soft pastels and playful moods, but I try to get as much of my own personality on each piece. I try not to look at other artists’ stuff otherwise my stuff will look like theirs. If you want to make it big you really need your own look. I believe I’ve done that now, no one that I know of is doing the art I’m doing.

Is there a network of surf-inspired artists on the peninsula?

I’m not too sure, I try to keep to myself as much as I can. So, if I’m not surfing, I’ll be in the studio creating. I know some of the other artists are surfers. Their art may be surf inspired, but I don’t know. I know that when I’m out surfing it’s to get away from the world, and that’s what I try to implement in all my pieces. So that people who don’t surf know the feeling of what it’s like to just be lost when the next wave is coming. Those other artists might do this too as I know they’re all surfers and we all chase the same thing.

Who do you regard as being within your orbit?

All those guys I have mentioned are in their own orbit. I try to keep work talk out of a lot of my conversations, but there is always that appreciation of the work they have done and the work I have done. But mainly when I do see these boys, it’s just about surf and what the swell has been doing. I’ll talk anyone’s ear off if they will let me, happy to discuss surf or the world, really just happy for the conversation (laughs).

Peninsula Essence – May 2021