‘Infectious enthusiasm’: Jonathan Yeo’s green portrait of David Attenborough unveiled

Jonathan Yeo hopes he has communicated the sitter’s “wisdom and thoughtfulness” in his latest portrait, but also the “sort of childlike, infectious enthusiasm” that audiences know so well.

Yeo is talking about his new, strikingly green, portrait of Sir David Attenborough, a figure who has gone beyond being a national treasure to someone known globally, and someone people might listen to when it comes to the catastrophes facing the world.

The portrait has been commissioned by the Royal Society and Yeo believes it is more relevant than ever.

“At a time when the planet seems more fragile than it ever has,” said Yeo, “that ability to educate people – and let’s face it, our politicians aren’t doing a very good job of dealing with the problems at hand – is more important than ever. He has probably done more than anyone to communicate that.”

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Yeo is talking just a month after one of the biggest fusses over a portrait for years: his vast and vividly red portrait of King Charles.

Measuring about 230cm x 166cm (8ft 6in by 6ft 6in), it is the first official painted portrait of Charles as king and went down badly with some critics. It was a bland, formulaic “masterpiece of shallowness” in the eyes of the Guardian’s critic Jonathan Jones; and for the Washington Post’s Sebastian Smee it was “confused, obsequious, oversized” and “unaccountably frightening”.

The New Statesman defended it, sort of. “This portrait will remind future generations of the King’s weirdness,” wrote Kara Kennedy.

Yeo admitted the response to the painting had been on a level he had never experienced before. “It was just bonkers really; there were memes, conspiracy theories … it was being talked about on the Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. That just doesn’t normally happen.”

It would have been easy to have felt slightly battered by the reaction. “It took me a day or two,” said Yeo. “At first it was ‘everyone is getting this wrong’ and you want to correct it.

“After a while you realise it’s so broad, so bonkers, there are so many different interpretations that actually, that’s the joy of it. It’s nice to feel that an old fashioned painted portrait can get the world talking about something.”

Queen Camilla is said to have liked it – “Yes, you’ve got him,” she reportedly said – and the king presumably feels the same way given it is to be displayed at Buckingham Palace over the summer.

Yeo is one of the UK’s most in-demand portrait painters with a fascinatingly diverse back catalogue of sitters, from Rupert Murdoch and Kevin Spacey, to Prince Philip and Malala Yousafzai.

“That’s the fun of the job really … the joy is that it is so varied.”

He feels particularly proud to have been commissioned to paint 98-year-old Attenborough. “He is one of the most extraordinary people, an incredible force of nature in every way. I was thrilled and a little bit surprised when I heard he had requested me for this portrait.”

There were five sittings, with the pair often chatting about art and artists.

“He professes to be slowing down and you wouldn’t blame him for that. But I didn’t see any sign of it. He’s got incredible recall for details of situations and he comes alive when he’s telling stories.”

The dominant colour in the Attenborough portrait is a browny-green, which came about when Yeo painted a study that had a green background. Attenborough “remarked how much he liked it so I kind of went with that”. It leaves room for audience interpretation, Yeo hopes.

The portrait was commissioned to mark 40 years of Attenborough’s fellowship of the Royal Society and goes on public display from 2 July.

Attenborough joins a portrait collection which includes Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell. .

“It was a tremendous honour to be elected a fellow of the Royal Society over 40 years ago,” Attenborough said, “and that my portrait has now been painted by such a master as Jonathan Yeo for the society’s extensive and important collection is extraordinary indeed.

“To spend so much of my life looking at the natural world and attempting to convey to others its amazing complexity, beauty and increasingly its fragility has been a great privilege. It has only been possible thanks to the extraordinary natural history film-makers and the many dedicated scientists who have willingly shared their work with us.”

Yeo is painting portraits at a time when some predict artificial intelligence may be able to do the same just as well – Ai-Da, for example, the world’s first ultra-realistic robot artist.

There are fascinating things happening in that sphere but it is still at the “proverbial monkeys with their typewriters” phase, Yeo says.

“Over time it will go on getting better and who knows, in 200 years, it may be different but I don’t think any artist living at the moment has too much to worry about.”