The tiniest dab of paint—that’s all artist Peggy Watkins needs. She applies it not with the brush bristles but with the tip of the handle. An artist’s confident hand, a quick pop of white—a bare speck really—and suddenly Dallas, via Dallas’s eyes, comes to life. “See? That bit of white catches the light. Eyes are easy, really. It’s all about catching the light coming in and coming out,” says Watkins, an acclaimed animal and wildlife painter and Kiawah’s fall artist-in-residence.
That would be Dallas, the adorable eight-month-old German wire-haired pointer, “a scruffy monkey,” claims her mama, Karen Krey, who’s delighted to watch how Dallas’s puppyish “jump de vivre” and over-the-top cuteness leap from a photograph and onto canvas, thanks to Watkins’s deft demonstration to a group of ten or so art enthusiasts.
The group sips coffee and samples scones as the morning sun washes over Voysey’s, as paint begins to wash over what only a short while ago was the artist’s blank canvas. Questions come up, and Watkins, ever relaxed and casual despite being watched as she works (giving new meaning to “performance art”), welcomes them. Why start with a yellow background? “That’s a good question,” Watkins replies. “If I’m using cool colors in the foreground, I like to have a warm background, otherwise the painting can feel pasty and flat, and the opposite is also true. It’s subtle,” she adds. “Plus, I don’t like starting with white.”
Never mind the white canvas, Watkins almost didn’t paint professionally at all. Her father was in the Navy and the family moved frequently, eventually settling in Alabama. She loved to draw as a child, and she dreamed of going to art school, but her father had more practical ideas. “He told me I could study business, teaching, or nursing, and so I graduated from Auburn University and worked as an accountant for twenty years,” she says. But while living and working in Atlanta, she began taking art classes, specifically oil painting, at the Atlanta College of Art at night, and discovered she still had a passion for drawing and painting and she had talent. “I took to it and eventually began working my way out of accounting,” says Watkins, who has painted professionally since 2003, full time for the last twelve years. “I’m a believer that what is meant for you always comes back around to you.”
From the get-go, even as a young girl, Watkins’s subject matter tended toward the four-legged variety—both wild and domestic animals, like scruffy Dallas, as well as the landscape they roam. After she and her husband married, they honeymooned in Africa, and were so enchanted that they’ve since returned numerous times and now own a home in Zambia’s bush country. “I can’t really describe it, but there’s just something about animals that has always compelled me,” Watkins says, who was especially interested in painting lions and other big cats. “I love painting dogs, too, especially bird and hunting dogs, but there’s something about the intensity of a wild animal. You can really feel it, especially in a predator-prey situation.”
Watkins was selected as the Featured Artist at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (SEWE) in 2008, and her work hangs in the permanent collection of the Bennington Center for the Arts in Vermont, in the private collections of Ted Turner and Pebble Hill Plantation, and in the gun rooms of Holland & Holland, a company that makes fine sporting guns. Largely due to the relationships developed with SEWE, she and her husband decided to move to Charleston in 2013. Today she paints at her Tradd Street home studio and shows her work at the Sportsman’s Gallery on King Street. And when she’s not painting, she enjoys honing her aim with sporting clays with the Charleston Annie Oakley Shooters, a group for women shooting arts enthusiasts that she founded along with members of the Kiawah Sporting Club.
But this particular morning, her aim zeros in on Dallas and the task at hand: capturing the pup’s spunky, tail-wagging essence in less than two hours. “To me a painting is less about ‘here is a dog’ than about creating an overall design within the painting. Shape is what creates energy and makes the eye want to look at it,” Watkins says. “I start with the face, the eyes, and then everything else needs to be integrated.” This, she explains, is really a matter of finding a balance between the painting’s “value relationships.” In other words, the color temperatures of warm and cool hues, light and dark, need to be in harmony.
Watkins refers to this as knowing her “rules,” but she’s also quite comfortable playing around with those rules, finding out how far she can bend them, learning as she goes. “After all, the beauty of oil is that you can paint right over it,” she laughs. Take Dallas’s tail, for example, a mere stroke of dark vertical energy across the top part of the canvas, but it’s not clearly defined. “I love lost and found edges, where the lines blur a little,” she says. “The viewer’s eye loves to find variety. It’s what moves the eye around the canvas.”
How do you know when a painting is finished? “When the truth is revealed,” Watkins answers. “I’m not being coy or woo-woo. That’s really it. I can just feel it,” she says. “It’s finished when I know that one more brush stroke isn’t going to add anything more to it.”