The Archibald prize is awarded annually for a portrait by an artist living in Australia. The subject is usually someone prominent in the arts, science or politics: the founder (the Archibald was established in 1921) would probably be startled to find chefs in this celebrity mix. As well as the main prize of $AUD100 000, there is a much more modest packing room prize, and a people’s choice prize. I realise again what a rich life I can live in country Australia when I discover that the 2016 finalists in this prestigious exhibition are on show in the Bega Regional Gallery, a mere hundred kilometres from home.

I’m interested in portraiture, how it reveals a person, and what it might tell me about writing portraits and biography.  I head off down the familiar coast road, past the site of the Four Winds festival, stopping for a walk along Cuttagee Beach.

The gallery is small and spacious. There aren’t too many people around, and there’s a comfortable bench in each room for seated contemplation. With each painting there’s an illuminating artist’s statement, telling the story of both subject and painting process; and a question for children, asking them to look at something specific. To cater for the other end of the age demographic, the artist statements are available in a large-print booklet. On the Archibald website a short video in sign language accompanies each painting.

I prowl around, following the empty spaces in front of paintings. I note the ones I’m drawn to, and also that there’s no pattern, except that I prefer complexity over simplification. I notice how much of the body is shown: head only, head and shoulders, to the waist or just below, the whole figure. I notice backgrounds: mere and not-so-mere paint, detailed setting, a blurry landscape. I also find myself oddly drawn to conceptual paintings: two that I categorise thus are self portraits.

How can I curate my impressions? Maybe I’ll take a hint from pop song charts and work my way from least liked to favourites.

This lot have faces too blank for my liking, or is it too artificial? I don’t have the urge to meet the subjects, or to look deeper into the paintings.

Kate Benton “Claudia”; Belinda Henry “Louise Olsen”; Sally Ross “Roslyn”; Carla Fletcher “Twin souls”

The next four all appeal to me because they create a powerful context for their subjects. Troy Grant is a NSW politician and former policeman who wanted to be represented in the place he loves best. He’s dressed in clothes that reflect the palette of harvested fields. His policeman’s cap and rosary are a reminder that as a policeman he led an attack on child sexual assault in the church. This prompted me to wonder what symbols subjects of my portraits, written or photographed, might hold to capture an essence of themselves: indeed what I myself might hold.

Mark Horton “Troy” – acrylic on canvas

These two women, Pamela Easton and Lydia Pearson, are fashion designers in partnership, and they are enfolded in their textiles, a real gift for an artist who often paints vibrant detailed patterns.

Monica Rohan “Easton Pearson” – oil on board

Sam Harris is a fashion model from the Bundjalung people, traditional owners of land in north-eastern NSW. The artist arranges her studio with things that speak of Harris’s interests, and then inserts her into the set after only two sittings. She borrows the pose from Manet’s “Olympia”.

Zoe Young “Sam Harris” – acrylic on canvas

A businessman and generous arts patron, Pat Corrigan is shown rising from his desk, in front of part of his impressive art collection. The colours of his hands and face look bizarre close up, but create a person full of character and echo the colours in the background paintings.

Alan Jones “Pat” – acrylic on board: collage on 151 pieces of wood

The composition of this one is what takes my fancy, a half figure and negative space. I’m also amused by the setting: the chef holding a toilet roll and sitting on the loo, which is the ultimate destination of all her hard work.

Daniel Butterworth “Annie Smithers” – acrylic on board

I find myself drawn to two paintings because of the concept as much as the artistry. McWillams portrays species who have destroyed the Australian landscape, including man, represented by a self portrait in the style of the 16th century Italian Renaissance painter, Giuseppe Arcimboldo. The animals are beautifully painted: the artist wanted to show their innocence, despite their depredations in an environment not theirs and not of their choosing.

Michael McWilliams “The usurpers” – acrylic on linen

I’ve encountered Imant Tillers many times and have always been a bit puzzled by his art. This time, he provides a gateway in. He calls this painting a visual poem, and explains that it came about when he finally had to acknowledge that he exists as a “self”. Suddenly it becomes accessible, and I wonder whether I could construct a similar account of my “self”, making use of photography. I immediately acknowledge that such an attempt would be guaranteed to show me just how complex “Double reality” is.

Imants Tillers “Double reality (self portrait)” – acrylic and gouache on 64 canvas boards

The paintwork in “Terry Serio” is glorious, thick and textured: the palette elegant: the subject relaxed and perfectly placed against a geometry of horizontal and vertical lines: 

Clara Adolph “Terry Serio” – oil on canvas

Maybe my delight in “Lucy and fans” is the result of imprinting because it’s the first painting I see as I enter the gallery: it doesn’t hurt that these birds have been rescued from a future as animal food at Mogo Zoo. The perspective from above allows the birds to show off their characteristic fans, and portrays Lucy surrounded by creatures she loves.

Lucy Culliton “Lucy and fans” – oil on canvas

The two paintings I keep coming back to are both portraits of anguish.

“The cost” portrays Craig Campbell who intervened in a violent mob attack on a train during the infamous Cronulla race riots in 2005. He now suffers chronic PTSD and needs a carer. The colours, the downturned eyes, the wrinkled ravages of his face convey the damage he suffers from his act of courage.

Abdul Abdullah “The cost” – oil and resin on board

Garry McDonald is an Australian comedian who suffers from  anxiety and depression. This painting captures the pain and inwardness in which he lives during dark episodes: the stillness, the greyness, the unreachability, the isolation, intensified by stormy grey cloud-like background.

Kirsty Neilson “There’s no humour in darkness” – oil and spray paint on canvas

The winner? Go back to the first photo of the gallery. That small one against a black background is it: Louise Hearman’s “Barry”, a portrait of Barry Humphries in oil on masonite.

The packing room winner is hidden around a corner and hard to photograph.

Begin Fauves-Ogden “George Calombaris, Masterchef” – oil on linen

The people’s choice is almost impossible to see whole, overlaid as it is by reflections in the glass. Deng is a former child soldier in the Sudan, a refugee and now a human rights lawyer. He is depicted almost photographically against a plain background, from the shoulders up, wearing a white shirt.

Nick Stathopoulos “Deng” – acrylic and oil on linen

You’ll probably notice that I’m a sucker for a story. I wonder how much of my pleasure comes from story and how much from artistry.