Full honours for Archibald favourite Ben Quilty’s painting of Margaret Olley.

Sydney-born Ben Quilty has won the 2011 Archibald Prize for his portrait of fellow artist Margaret Olley, the matriarch of Australian painting, the Art Gallery of New South Wales announced in a ceremony today.  

The pair first met in 2002 when Olley was a guest judge for the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarhip, which was awarded to Quilty. When the younger artist asked her to sit for a portrait, she initially declined his offer. “Her lack of ego is so appealing,” says Quilty. “Margaret didn’t understand why anyone would want to see a portrait of her.”

In fact, Olley had already been the subject of an Archibald-winning portrait over 60 years ago by another legend of Australian painting, Sir William Dobell, though Olley has never won the prize herself. “I’m proud for him”, the diminutive 88-year-old said of Quilty’s achievement during today’s announcement at the gallery.

In Quilty’s signature impasto style, Olley is depicted affectionately in her iconic straw hat with a discerning raised eyebrow. The 38-year-old painter explains the bright palette and broad, bold brushstrokes capture his mentor’s vivid personality as well as her creative process. “You just need to walk into her home, which is also her studio, to see that you couldn’t use anything but striking colour. It’s full of translucent works-in-progress, beautiful drawings, sculptures and flowers, so I wanted the portrait to reflect that.

“She’s such an inspiration. She was a feminist ahead of her time. She’s vigorously passionate about social and political issues, as well as art, and is enormously compassionate.”

It is the sixth time Quilty’s work has been included in the Archibald’s finalist selections. He was elected runner-up in 2009 for his Rorschach-style symmetrical portrait of Jimmy Barnes. The winner that year was Guy Maestri, with his subject the folksinger Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. This year’s runner-up is Amanda Marburg’s portrait of cryptic crossword creator David Astle.

Quilty wins $50,000″. My father didn’t want me to be a painter”, he said, “but now he’s my biggest fan”.

The Archibald exhibition opens tomorrow at the Art Gallery of NSW. See event details here.