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This year's Archibald finalists have been revealed – colour us pleasantly surprised

Ben Neutze

It might be the most popular annual art exhibition in the country, but it's easy to be cynical about the Archibald Prize. It tends to be dominated by famous faces, the quality can vary a lot, and it rarely represents the scope of artistic talent across Australia.

But this year's finalists have just been unveiled and we're pretty impressed by the breadth of styles on display and the depth of talent. That could be partly because this year has attracted the most entries the prize has ever had, with 919 painters throwing their work into the fray.

This year's finalists exhibition, with 51 Archibald paintings, is one of the best we can remember. That's partly because the finalists for the Wynne and Sulman prizes (which are presented in the same exhibition) are incredibly strong. In fact, this year the exhibition starts with the Sulman prize (for best subject or genre painting), before you even get to a portrait.

But what faces are on display once you get to the Archies main? This year 17 of the 51 finalists are of other artists, and 11 are self portraits. That means more than half the faces on the gallery walls belong to artists.

Notable sitters include media personalities Leigh Sales, Annabel Crabb and Benjamin Law, former Archibald winner Del Kathryn Barton, ballet dancer Li Cunxin, Rabbitohs player Greg Inglis and athlete Dylan Alcott. This year there are four actors – Nakkiah Lui, Madeleine Madden, Sarah Peirse and David Wenham.

There's also John Beard's gorgeous portrait of the Art Gallery of NSW's beloved former director Edmund Capon, who died less than two months ago. With a Bill Henson photo behind him, this is likely to be a sentimental favourite with the AGNSW trustees who select the winner.

A surprising trend? Bubs are in fashion. This year there are surprisingly few old white men sitting in chairs, but four paintings of either pregnant women or including babies.

The winner of the $1,500 Packing Room Prize, selected by the staff of the packing room and head packer Brett Cuthbertson, is Tessa Mackay for her portrait of serial Archibald sitter David Wenham, who's been painted twice before. It's more than three metres wide and shows Wenham sitting in the window of a Newtown café. You can see the street reflected back across his face in the portrait, which Mackay says took 12 months to complete.

Cuthbertson, who holds 52 per cent of the vote, said he was maybe more attracted to the painting due to the vase, sugar jar and salt shaker, than Wenham.

"David's in a reflective mood," he said. "We've got a lot to think about these days, us blokes. David seems to be doing all of the thinking for us. Well he's doing my share, I know that for sure."

The Packing Room Prize is seen as something of a poisoned chalice, as the winner has never gone on to win the Archibald. That winner will be revealed next Friday, May 10, but until then you can look at the online finalists gallery and pick your own favourite. Or just wait until the exhibition opens next weekend and see them in the flesh.

You can check out the Archibald Prize exhibition from May 11 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Here’s what else is on this month in Sydney.

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