Portraits painted on road signs, covered in glitter and surrounded with real human hair are among the finalists for a national portraiture award announced tonight.

The winning piece surprised judges with its "originality" - a self portrait of Lower Hutt artists Sacha Lees, in which she appears to be painting the colour into her own face.

Lees was "privileged and honoured" to be taking home the $20,000 cash prize for the Adam Portraiture Award.

Her piece, Sometimes an outline coloured in shows her holding a paintbrush, painting her own face to create the self portrait.

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"My portrait conveys how I feel, day-to-day life sometimes leaves me as an outline of myself, and time in my studio enables me to fill in the colours."

Dave all around, by Sandro Kopp. Photo / Supplied
Dave all around, by Sandro Kopp. Photo / Supplied

Her portrait was chosen as the winner from a record 373 entries nationwide and 50 finalists at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pūkenga Whakaata this evening.

Lees said it was "quite confronting" doing a self portrait.

"It's not often you take stock and look at yourself that hard."

Working on it had highlighted the passage of time for her.

"I noticed I had my mother's hands, and I'm not really sure when that happened.

"In this work I am literally painting myself – and the act of painting in my studio is filling my soul back up and grounding myself . . . Sometimes an outlined coloured in means sometimes in life we can spread ourselves so thin trying to fulfill so many requirements that we can lose ourselves and start to fade lose our colour and become an outline."

Vivienne Still saw the subject of her portrait sitting on a ledge at Wellington's waterfront and asked to take her photo so she could paint her. Photo / Supplied
Vivienne Still saw the subject of her portrait sitting on a ledge at Wellington's waterfront and asked to take her photo so she could paint her. Photo / Supplied

The runner-up and winner of the $2500 second prize was awarded to Vivienne Still from Foxton for her work Engage.

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It was the first major work Still had completed since the death of her daughter in 2012, and she said it was "a real battle", but became easier to do as she went on.

Still came across a young woman sitting on a ledge on Wellington's waterfront and asked if she could take a photo of her to base her portrait on. They are now good friends, she said.

"I find young people have so much potential and so much to give. We need to help and listen to them. I always think that putting young people up on something higher elevates where they are about to go in the future and that's what I hoped to illustrate with this work."

A Sip At A Time (Colin Matura-Jeffree), by Leila Ataya. Photo / Supplied
A Sip At A Time (Colin Matura-Jeffree), by Leila Ataya. Photo / Supplied

Judges Dr Linda Tyler, associate professor of Art History, Museum and Cultural Heritage at the University of Auckland and Karen Quinlan, director of the National Portrait Gallery of Australia selected the shortlist over several weeks.

Tyler said the concept of the winning piece was simple, "but neither of us have ever seen it before".

Other finalist portraits included one created by British actress Tilda Swinton's husband, Sandro Kopp, and incorporated real human hair.

Called Dave all around, the piece lists "Dave's hair" as one of the materials used.

Another, Spaceman, by Delicia Sampero, was painted on reflective road sign material, and Ministry of Cats by Reverend Mark Curtis was studded with glitter throughout.

Dame Suzie Moncrieff, by Kate MacKenzie. Photo / Supplied
Dame Suzie Moncrieff, by Kate MacKenzie. Photo / Supplied

The portraits also include well-known New Zealanders, such as comedian Rose Matafeo, World of Wearable Arts founder Dame Suzie Moncrieff, and model Colin Mathura-Jeffree.

The Adam Portraiture Award exhibition will run at the gallery on Wellington's waterfront until May 22, after which it will tour nationally. After this, the exhibition will be touring nationally.

Rose Catherine Lettitia Matefeo, by Sam Mitchell. Photo / Supplied
Rose Catherine Lettitia Matefeo, by Sam Mitchell. Photo / Supplied