As a little girl who loved to draw animals, Peggy Watkins always figured she’d be an artist. “I always knew it was animals I wanted to paint,” she says. “When I was a kid, I would draw animals and it would bring them into the room with me—it had that connection for me.” Yet when it came time to go to college, her father discouraged her from pursuing a career in art. “Do something where you can get a real job,” was his advice.

Reluctantly heeding his counsel, Peggy studied accounting at Auburn University, and eventually earned a CPA. “But I always knew in my heart that I was an artist,” she maintains. “I never lost the love of it and never stopped doing it. After she got married, Watkins and her husband, Todd, moved to Atlanta, where, as fate would have it, they lived across the street from the Atlanta College of Art. Peggy enrolled in a night class in oil-painting to brush up on her skills and soon decided art was her true calling. “So I worked my way out of accounting and became a full-time artist and just never looked back,” she reports. That was 16 years ago.

Today Watkins’s canvasses illustrate critters of all stripes, from zebras on the African savannah to bison, elk, and grizzly bears from the American West. Her favorite subject, however, is much closer to home. “At the end of the day, it comes down to the dog,” admits the artist. “It’s their eyes, and the expression in them. They’re so relatable to everybody.”

Watkins became fascinated with bird dogs in 2003, but had no personal interest in hunting. While exhibiting her work at an art show—her first—in Moultrie, Georgia, that same year, she met a man who told her that if she really wanted to learn to paint bird dogs, she needed to experience hunting first-hand. To that end, he invited her to his plantation in Albany, Georgia, where he introduced Peggy and Todd to quail hunting. At first, the artist just took photographs of the bird dogs in action as subjects for her work, but after several years, she was finally persuaded to pick up a gun herself.

Watkins and her husband now go quail hunting in Thomasville, Georgia, every winter with their English setter and springer spaniel in tow. Both animal lovers, the couple also owns two Marsh Tacky horses, a rare breed indigenous to the islands along South Carolina’s coast, where they are descendants of horses left by Spanish explorers.

Much of her work, which the artist describes as “impressionistic realism,” depicts hunting scenes starring a mix of working-dog breeds. It’s the strong use of color and light in her paintings that catches the eye, along with the loose brush strokes that give her work its fluid movement. Yet something more shines through from the animals in her canvases. “I see their truth,” shares Watkins. “I try to just see their essence. That’s what I learn from them, and that’s what comes out in the painting.”

Her surroundings also guide her hand, be it the quail-hunting woods, the towering mountains out West, or the live oaks that abound on the couple’s 167-acre property south of Charleston. “Everything starts to make patterns in my head—the shadows, the quality of light . . . . When I finish a painting, it’s so rewarding to step back and say, ‘Yeah, that’s great.’ Not that I’m great, but the thing that comes through me is great. This is my gift, and I’m giving it.”

You can find Peggy Watkins’s paintings in the Sportsman’s Gallery Ltd, at 165 King St in Charleston (sportsmansgallery.com), or on her website, peggywatkins.net.