Sophie Green

Into the Wild with Sophie Green

The most famous wildlife artist of her generation is giving a platform to vulnerable species.

Does art count as wellness? Sophie Green thinks so, and the British wildlife artist has science on her side. Studies show that viewing art can lower stress, increase empathy, and strengthen feelings of happiness and awe. Meanwhile, a lab test found that making art by drawing, sculpting, painting, or even just coloring can reduce anxiety levels by 70% or more.

And Sophie’s not just making art for human benefit. The proceeds from her hyper-realistic wildlife portraits help support conservation efforts worldwide, and a recent portrait of a chimpanzee drew about $24,000 for the Jane Goodall Society. “If I were just making these images for my own benefit, I would have given up a long time ago,” she says. “But knowing they have a greater purpose in the world is what really keeps me going.”

We called Sophie’s studio in East Sussex (“I live in the woods, basically”) to talk about her painting style, her advice for using art as a wellness ritual, and the lasagna that’s getting her through the winter.

Sophie, we love your art! Were you always the kid drawing lions and giraffes in your school notebooks?

Always! Any type of animal—pets or wild animals—I would draw it. I always came back to wildlife. It’s always been my fascination and passion. Really, I’d say my passion for wildlife and the natural world is bigger than my passion for the art industry. I don’t go to a ton of art galleries, but I’m quite happy to just stare out the window. To me, that’s where the art is.

True or false: You started your career as an elementary school teacher?

Completely true, although here in the UK, we call it a “primary school” teacher. But yes. I quit my job in my mid-20s because I knew I would only be truly happy as an artist. But I still had bills to pay, and so I took commissions painting people’s pets. It was very stressful and scary, not knowing if I could do what I loved, but I felt a lot less anxiety when I was painting wildlife—I felt so connected to the work‚ and as time has gone on, my specialty has become doing portraits of vulnerable species.

Sophie Green

Why are you so drawn to those animals?

It’s two things. The first is, I just connect very deeply with them on an emotional level. The second is, the vulnerability of these animals stands for the vulnerability of the whole world. If one of these species ceases to exist, it can have a [butterfly] effect on all ecosystems around the planet. With my art, I’m trying to bring these animals closer together with the viewer, but at the same time, they’re a symbol of a huge world that we have the obligation to respect and protect.

Your paintings are so lifelike, but there’s no way you can get a panda to sit still for 10 hours while you paint her… right?

I mean, that would be amazing, but no. I don’t bring a lion into my studio and say, “Have a seat, please.” Instead, whenever I can, I photograph the animal myself on an expedition… If I’m not able to do that, I’ll use various reference photos… I edit a lot on my computer before I pick up a paintbrush to get the composition right, and then I pick up a paintbrush, and paint from the photo.

How does seeing the animals in the wild, as opposed to at a zoo or rehabilitation center, change your art?

That is such a good question, because obviously, travel can use a lot of fuel and when you’re in the wild, you need to be extremely careful about respecting the animals’ natural habitat and territory. One of the big differences you’ll notice with an animal in the wild is its coat. The first time I saw a free lion, instead of one at the zoo, I realized that it was covered in scratches, dust, scars—things that naturally happen to a predator in the wild. That type of detail is so necessary for hyper-realistic work… Then there’s context. In 2021, I went on an expedition to the Arctic. I saw polar bears navigating thinner ice, and I could see firsthand the way we’ve messed with their environment, even though most of us have never been near a polar bear! That really changed my world, and I think it gave my work even more urgency. I understand how some people can say, “Nobody should travel, it’s wasteful!” but changing your perspective is never wasteful. And we can do so many things to lower our impact on the planet.

We say “progress, not perfection” a lot at Wild Elements.

Exactly. It’s not about being frozen. It’s about making better choices for ourselves and the world. I mean, I literally live in a cabin in the woods. I have a vegetable garden; I eat local organic produce from nearby farms; I don’t eat meat. I paint in acrylics because they use fewer chemicals than oil paints. There are so many ways to lessen your impact without lessening your life.

Big cat

What’s the goal of your art?

It's twofold. My overarching goal is to connect people with wildlife and nature. Knowing people are looking at my art and it’s changing their worldview, that’s the big goal. I’d also like to put wildlife art on the map, so to speak, because the art industry still doesn’t see it as “fine” art. It’s not as expensive, not as “important.” But for me, it’s the most important type of art, because it helps connect the dots between ourselves and the natural world. Also, female artists earn ridiculously less money than male artists! The highest earning male is earning stupid amounts more! So there’s a broader goal of leveling that playing field, too.

Do you have a favorite animal fact?

Well, here in my studio right now, I’ve got a chimp staring at me and I’ve got a wild dog looking at me! Actually, I love this chimp—her name is Wounda—because she was one of the first animals to receive a blood transfusion. She’d been really injured by poachers and the Jane Goodall Institute needed to save her. There’s this amazing footage of her, when she’s finally well and walking back into the wild, of her turning around and running to hug Jane [Goodall] goodbye.

What’s your favorite vegan swap?

To be totally honest, I tried to be full vegan and I just could not find a “fake” butter or cheese that I found edible. Sorry. I hated it. But once I started learning to buy vegetables in season, and to cook vegetables to really enhance their natural taste, it was so much better! I’ve gone all-in on vegetable lasagna this winter because with just the veggies, it’s so good. You don’t need, like, fake meat crumbles or whatever. Just stick with great vegetables.

Studies show that art is a great practice for wellness. What’s your advice for people who think they’re “not creative” to get involved?

People love to put themselves down, don’t they?! “I’m not creative; I can’t do art!” Look, I definitely don’t think I’m more creative than the average person, truly. I’m not a successful artist because of creativity; it’s just my perseverance and stubbornness! So just sit down and doodle. Just do it! And if you’re really not into it, think of the other ways you do create things—cooking, writing, gardening. Even working out is creative, because it’s really about creating a stronger body and designing a series of movements that work for you. Working on cars is totally creative! If you’re making something, you are creative.