The Doug Moran National Portrait Prize, worth $150,000, has this year been won by Melbourne artist Lynn Savery for a self-portrait, featuring her friend's English bulldog Clementine.
It is her first major prize.
Savery, who describes herself as "self-taught", was in tears as she accepted the award in Sydney, at Paddington's Juniper Hall.
"I'm really taken aback," she said.
"To be honest, this is my first portrait painting, my first oil painting. I never expected to get into the finals, let alone win."
She had previously entered it into the Art Gallery of New South Wales' Archibald Prize, where it was rejected.
Savery's self-portrait was one of two paintings she entered into the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize; both were short-listed as semi-finalists.
"I thought I'd won the Lotto."
Savery's self-portrait was selected by judges Louise Hearman, Ron Radford AM and Greta Moran from a shortlist of 30 finalists, culled from an entry pool of 1,300 paintings.
Finalists this year included previous winner Vincent Fantauzzo, with a portrait of his wife Asher Keddie, and established artists Peter Smeeth, Jan Nelson and Peter Churcher.
Subjects ranged from notable faces such as investigative journalist Kate McClymont to artists like Sydney Dance Company's Rafael Bonachela, as well as friends and family members.
Eleven of the 30 finalists are self-portraits.
In a statement about the winning painting, Hearman said: "Each time I look I see fascinating things that make me think."
"The maker of this painting has an obsessive eye for detail and is also able to make the entire painting sing as a whole. It has emotion, beauty and love of life's visual stories.
"The painting is full of invention, sophisticated colour and defiant splat-in-your-face appeal."
The Doug Moran National Portrait Prize is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and an exhibition of past winners will appear at Juniper Hall alongside this year's winner and finalists, from tomorrow.
Established in 1988, the DMNPP is Australia's richest art prize, and is administered by the philanthropic not-for-profit Moran Arts Foundation.
Guidelines for the prize call for "original works from Australian artists, capturing Australians from all walks of life, whether a public figure or someone from their own circle of experience. Works must be painted at least partly from life with the sitter known to the artist and aware of the artist's intention to enter the Prize."
From novice to national recognition
Savery, 58, says that although she has drawn for most of her life, she has only been painting for around two years.
"I'd suffered a terrible depression, had ECT treatment, suffered terrible anxiety as a result ... I thought I really need to get out and do something structured, that I have to commit to."
She enrolled in a part-time evening course in painting technique, run by the Victorian College of the Arts.
"I keep thinking it [my self-portrait] should have an L plate next to it."
She describes her CV as "like something out of Willy Wonka's factory — it's all over the place."
"I've done furniture design, made musical instruments, made leather belts for Country Road menswear, did a PhD in international politics, worked as a postgrad at the ANU, worked at the UN and the International Labour Organisation in women's human rights..."
She also writes, and says she has four unpublished children's books and an unpublished novel.
"You talk about rejection, I've had a bit of rejection," she says, smiling.
For the last two years, she says, she was caring for her father, who had dementia (and passed away in February); then her husband was diagnosed with cancer.
Finding time to paint was hard.
"I work at home in the dining room, which means I can paint when I have a moment. The trouble is, the continuity is hard when you only have moments."
Her winning work is her first portrait, let alone self-portrait.
"I wondered, what will show up: that part of me [the anxiety and depression]? Or will it be the more optimistic, more confident [side of me]?"
"Everybody says I seem confident."