A self-taught artist and mother-of-two who only started painting 18 months ago has won an international art competition.

Sue Cook, a former scientist, is now looking forward to jetting off to one of the world's art capitals, New York, to put on her first exhibition.

After gaining a degree in microbiology, working in a laboratory and then at the Oxford Mail as an advertising sales manager and, most recently, training to become a science teacher, Mrs Cook decided to give it all up to follow her true passion - art.

She was seven months pregnant with her second child, Maddy, now two, when she gained her teaching certificate and decided that painting was the way forward.

After she put Maddy and son James, six, to bed, she would reach for her acrylics and spend hours in the kitchen of her home in Dovehouse Close, Eynsham, creating contemporary pieces.

After selling a painting on the online auction website eBay, she built her own website to try to carve out a living through art - and the orders started rolling in.

It was via her website that she was spotted by American-run myartspace.com and asked to submit examples of her work for the 2006 International Competition for Artists.

To her amazement, her five paintings of flowers gained her 6,849 online votes and she was picked from 700 hopefuls to win the contest, along with two installation artists and a photographer, all from America.

Mrs Cook, 42, said: "I am still shocked and can't quite believe it. It's a great opportunity and I'm very excited about the prospect of the exhibition.

"I'm hoping it will make my work more widely accepted. As I haven't got any formal training, I've found it difficult to get exhibition space at galleries, so to be going to New York is a dream."

Mrs Cook, whose husband Gary is an electronics engineer, is spending this week in France at an artists' retreat with other winners as part of her prize.

The New York exhibition is scheduled for spring 2007.