If there's one thing you can guarantee about the Archibald prize, it’s that nothing is guaranteed. This year was no different, with the announcement of the final Packing Room Prize for veteran head packer Steve Peters dwarfing the news of the 104 finalists for the prestigious Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes.

For 35 years, Peters has overseen the constant stream of paintings that arrive at the Art Gallery NSW loading dock (2154 entries this year alone), before overseeing the hanging of the finalists. He’s also overseen the vote for the $1500 Packing Room Prize. According to Peters it’s the portrait “that’s good and looks just like the sitter”. Another guarantee of this art competition is that the Packing Room Prize is the kiss of death: never has Peters’s pick gone on to win the coveted Archibald Prize.

On the eve of replacing art on canvas with the art of golf, Peters addressed the media circus to announce the lucky – or perhaps unlucky – winner of this year’s prize: Central Coast artist Peter Smeeth for his portrait of Today show host Lisa Wilkinson.

It’s the 34th time Smeeth has entered the competition and his third as finalist (he won the 2011 Sulman Prize). Wilkinson was on hand to express her congratulations, with a freshly plastered arm broken during a recent Italian sojourn.

The 96th Archibald Prize this year attracted 822 entries, featuring a typically diverse range of subjects, styles and canvas sizes. Of the 43 finalists, actor John Bell makes it in twice, while other sitters range from outgoing Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs, Aboriginal actor Jack Charles, artist John Olsen and Go-Betweens frontman Robert Forster; with a number of arresting self-portraits including those of Tony Albert (judge of this year’s Sulman Prize) and Jessica Ashton.

Less high-profile but often of more interest artistically are the Wynne and Sulman prizes for landscape painting or figurative sculpture, and genre painting, subject painting or mural project, respectively.

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The 42 Wynne finalists and 19 Sulman finalists include respected artists Nicholas Harding, Guan Wei, Alan Jones, Fiona Lowry, Kim Leutwyler, Guy Maestri, Tim Storrier, Josh Yeldham and Abdul Abdullah, who is co-judging this year’s Young Archie competition.

“The biggest surprise this year was the number of Indigenous works entered for the Wynne Prize,” says 2017 curator Anne Ryan. “I think there’s a growing awareness in the art centres in more remote parts of Australia that the Archibald is a great opportunity for them to showcase their artists’ work to a city audience, and this is the most highly visited group of exhibitions in the country so it’s a wonderful way to get eyes onto canvases.”

The winner of the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes will be announced on Friday July 28. The exhibition runs July 29 to October 22 at the Art Gallery NSW before touring regionally.