Nick Stathopoulos makes a political statement with his portrait of the ABC presenter.

Most television presenters are accustomed to the scrutiny of close-ups and headshots, but for Fenella Kernebone, former host of ABC’s Art Nation, seeing her visage writ large on a 1.38m-squared canvas was confronting.

Then, to find Nick Stathopoulos’s portrait of her hanging in the Art Gallery NSW as one of the 41 finalists in the Archibald Prize ­– an event she has covered on television in previous years – was even more of a shock.

“It’s huge – much bigger than me. He spent lot of time with my mug!” she laughs.

“I love Nick’s hyperrealism; he takes forever to create a portrait. His work is incredibly detailed and intricate.”

Stathopoulos clearly watches a lot of television: he was exhibited as a finalist in the 2008 Archibald Prize for his portrait of At the Movies host David Stratton asleep in a darkened cinema, and in 2003 for a tribute to his childhood hero Mr Squiggle and puppeteer Norman Hetherington.

Although he “always thought Fenella was very striking and would make an interesting subject”, it was the demise of her ABC show Art Nation at the end of 2011 that compelled Stathopoulos to paint her as a champion of the arts in Australia. “I was disappointed that the ABC had cancelled their only dedicated local arts program, so I thought it was a good time to paint Fenella because it was topical,” he says.

Stathopoulos took photographs of Kernebone on a sunny day at Sydney’s Paddington Reservoir; the pair then went to his nearby studio for a sitting to “check freckles and eyeballs”, Kernebone recalls. Stathopoulos, who paints with movie soundtracks playing in the background, chose to listen to the scores of Metropolis and Alien during the three weeks it took him to complete the portrait.

It was the final touch – three words stenciled faintly on the wall behind Kernebone – that gave the work its title and expresses its simple yet powerful message. “I have a friend in Fitzroy in Melbourne who collects graffiti and I told her I wanted to put something very bold behind Fenella, something very contemporary in feel,” Stathopoulos explains.

“I was sent a bundle of samples and one of them was the stencil art that read, ‘Art does belong.’ Well, I couldn’t have hoped for anything better. It makes a political statement without detracting from the sitter.”

Kernebone says she is delighted with the results. “He’s really beautifully captured a gentle moment, a slight smile, but his politics are also coming through and we have a shared sensibility there.

“It’s about the role of the arts and how we consider it and include it in the fabric of how we live our lives. He’s a passionate lover of art.”

“I’m always concerned about the subtext of a painting,” says Stathopoulos. “It’s got to have more than just a superficial gloss to it, and I like to tell a story.”

Fenella Kernebone currently hosts By Design on ABC Radio National. The Archibald Prize exhibition runs from March 31 until June 3 at the Art Gallery NSW.