This artist’s animal paintings bridge a gap between photography and reality

British conservation artist Sophie Green’s hyper-real portraits invite the viewer to stand eye to eye with some of the world's most endangered animals.

By Simon Ingram
illustrations by Sophie Green
Published 28 Oct 2022, 17:15 BST
'The Watcher': African wild dog, by Sophie Green – part of her Impermanence collection.

'The Watcher': African wild dog, by Sophie Green – part of her Impermanence collection.

Art by Sophie Green

STARE INTO THE EYES of 'The Watcher,' British artist Sophie Green’s portrait of an African wild dog, and you’ll see there’s something reflected. A triangular outline, of a distant mountain perhaps, or maybe a termite mound on the savanna. Something the animal is looking at, in any case, that draws and locks your own gaze. And of course, by the time it does, you realise that the animal is actually now looking at you.

The effect is striking: a strangely intimate moment with one of the planet’s most beleaguered mammals emerging from the shadows. But it's not really an animal, of course.  

“That’s always been my aim,” says Green. “I want my artwork to be a window into another ecosystem. So people can feel they’re face to face with the animal, rather than looking through a lens or at just another picture. Most people don’t get that experience unless they go on a safari or an expedition. I kind of want my artwork to be that experience for them.”

'Thin Ice II:' Green's latest collection was initially meant to focus on polar animals, including the polar bear she photographed from the deck of an exhibition ship. “That painting, for instance, was a scene I saw – fading footprints, melting ice. I liked the composition.”

Art by Sophie Green

'Concordia' is a painting of a pair of humpback whales. Much of Green's work is based on photographs - either her own, or those of others. She says: “The thing I love about creating a piece of art as opposed to taking a photo... when photographing animals there’s not that much control over what the animal is doing, how the animal is looking at you. With a painting I can kind of control things a little bit.”  

Art by Sophie Green

Based in East Sussex, Green – who describes herself as a conservation artist – has won wide acclaim for her work, both artistic and charitable. She has been shortlisted for the David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year, bagged hanging space in the Blue Zone of COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow and was awarded the Medal of Excellence from the Artists for Conservation Foundation.

Now, a new 14-piece exhibition – entitled Impermanence: The Art of Conservation – is opening at London’s OXO Tower, with thirty percent of the proceeds forming a project fund destined for causes to tackle the effects of climate change. Initially envisioned to feature only polar animals, Green says she quickly realised she was “painting myself into a corner – conservation issues, human encroachment and climate change affect all animals, all over the world. So I started to branch out.” Hence images of balletic humpbacks, a great white shark, penguins, a lion – and that African wild dog, amongst others.


Green’s subjects have always been animals. A selective mute until the age of seven, she describes growing up “extremely introverted… I used to just sit and read encyclopaedias, make fact-files about cats or whatever it was. And I was obsessed with wildlife and animals.”

After a period spent working as a primary school teacher, Green’s art began to evolve into a career. “It was very gradual. I painted my whole life, but only a hobby – I wasn’t innately great at it, never the gifted child at school.”

“I want my artwork to be a window into another ecosystem. So people can feel they’re face to face with the animal, rather than looking through a lens or at just another picture. ”

Sophie Green

Sophie Green at work on her painting of an African white rhino and its calf.

Photograph by Sophie Green

Green also claims her art is not rooted in creativity. “I’m quite detail-focused. it’s just my personality type. I would say I’m more analytical. I prefer something to be exact and precise.”  

She says she paints in acrylic – “a certain brand” – and adds that it’s an unusual medium in hyper-realism. “It dries very quickly, but weirdly I prefer that,” Green says. “The way I build depth is with layer after layer after layer, and I do it quickly. It creates more of a depth perception.”

This lends itself to the hyper-real quality her work exhibits. “In watercolour you work light to dark; you work dark to light in oil and acrylic. It’s less a physical thing, more of a light perception. Light value on top of dark values kind of gives the impression of being in three dimensions.”

Green works a lot from photographs – both those of others, and her own. “All the paintings kind of originated in my head first,” she says. “Often I use a bunch of photos that I can mould into what I see in my head – to put something tangible together to help me create the painting. Occasionally I’ll see the animal, then decide to paint that scene.” She indicates an image of a polar bear walking between ice floes, based on a photograph she took whilst on an expedition to the Arctic – a trip she says informed the genesis of Impermanence. “That painting, for instance, was a scene I saw – fading footprints, melting ice. I liked the composition.”

Left: Top:

Some of the world's animals most vulnerable to climate change are featured in the Impermanence collection, including the snow leopard - which is being forced into conflict with humans due to its diminishing range and development around its edges. The painting is called 'Stealth.' 

Right: Bottom:

Much of Green's art excludes the environment of the animal, but not all of it. This painting of a whale shark – 'Resurgam' – originated with a photograph; when painting Green says she “changed the light, added some bubbles in.”

photographs by Sophie Green

Much of her work in the new collection however features the distinctive dark-to-light portraits – a stark aesthetic reminiscent of Joel Sartore’s photographic work with the National Geographic Photo Ark. Yet Green says she is more drawn towards photographs that show the animal’s place in their habitat. “I’m weirdly drawn to photographers who include a bit more of the landscape, a bit more of the environment,” she says. “I try and get out into those environments, if I can, to see the animals, see how they move… but I’m very conscious of my carbon footprint.”

Art and climate change have crossed over rather more obliquely in recent months, with Da Vinci, Van Gogh and Monet paintings the literal targets of protestors attempting to raise awareness about the environmental emergency. All paintings were unharmed by the projectiles – cake, soup and mashed potato respectively – but it has further deepened the debate about methods of rousing action from apathy. Defacing art versus making it, if you like.  

“I definitely think these radical displays are needed in some sense,” Green says. “The Van Gogh, I kind of got [what they were trying to say] but everyone was in such an uproar about it that I think it kind of took away from the message. I think activists should be trying to wake people up, but [instead of] angering people, I personally think it’s better to inspire them.”

She adds: “From a place of despair… great things can come from that. But often I find people make more lasting and sustainable change if it’s coming from a place of inspiration and hope. So I like to show people that there is still hope.”

But with many scientists warning the threshold for reversing climate change has passed, is there cause for optimism at all? “I am personally hopeful that in some way we can start to turn things around. If you’re just resigned to the fact there is nothing left to be done, then what’s the point? That just leads to worldwide apathy,” Green says. “I feel like we caused it, we should be the ones fixing it. So I’m hopeful. Call it ignorance, or stupidity, but there’s got to be hope. Because what are we going to do otherwise?”

Green adds that hope is an embedded theme in her collections – ‘you won’t often see heartbreaking imagery in my artwork’ – and is also the source of the exhibition’s ambiguous title.

“The name ‘Impermanence’ is open to interpretation – it kind of implies the impermanence of certain species and ecosystems,” she says. “But it could also represent the impermanence of our problems. There’s a dark side, but there can also be a light side.”


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