Archibald Prize-winning artist Ben Quilty has unveiled an unvarnished depiction of soldiers serving in Afghanistan and the sometimes dark reality of life after military service.
As official war artist for the Australian War Memorial, Quilty followed the Australian Defence Force into Kabul, Kandahar and Tarin Kowt in 2011 to record and interpret the experiences of the troops.
Launching the exhibition After Afghanistan in Sydney on Wednesday, he told AAP he saw the 21 studio paintings on display as portraits of survivors.
"When the special forces went out at night, a priest would come and bless all the vehicles," Quilty said.
"To see these young men from Townsville go out through those gates, into the desert, in Tarin Kowt - you think, am I going to see you again?
"It is an overwhelmingly and profoundly dark feeling."
Three of the soldiers he met have since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Retired Air Commodore John Oddie, a former deputy commander of Joint Task Force 633 in the Middle East, was featured in three Quilty portraits.
He said he could see sadness in the paintings that he wouldn't have owned up to when he sat for them.
He said it was important that military personnel were "visible" to the public to ensure society understood "the consequences of military service (for) our people and their families".
War Memorial director Brendan Nelson said the exhibition was "raw" but accurate.
"It's not what you see; it's what you feel," he said.
Quilty had joined a long Australian tradition of official war artists that dated back to World War I, Dr Nelson said.
Will Dyson was the first official war artist in 1917.
The exhibition will be on display in Sydney until April, and then it will tour Australia.