Roger Goulet: Finding art in watercolor

by Anne Marie Brako


Almost anyone can use a watercolor kit: an amateur horticulturist in a hothouse, depicting a new hybrid, a tourist on a bench painting an architectural wonder, a toddler at a kitchen table. Aided by talent, a true artist can elevate the watercolor to a work of art. Carlisle resident Roger Goulet of Westford Street exemplifies such skill in his show currently at the Gleason Public Library and running through February 26.

“Up until the mid- to late-19th century, watercolor was something polite ladies did,” said Goulet. “You see pictures of flowers, and all done with uniform value – usually light. Winslow Homer once said, ‘The colors that you use are not that important, what’s important is value.’” Goulet referenced a ground-breaking watercolor by Homer, “Leaping Trout” on exhibit in the new wing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It is a portrait of vibrant fish seemingly suspended in midair against a dark background. Goulet continued, “He liberated watercolor from its prissy antecedents and almost single-handedly made it into a serious art form.”

Goulet strives for value contrast in all his work, and adds that it wouldn’t be interesting without it. His preferred subject is the female form and portraits, although he paints landscapes as well. On the second floor of the library, one can find two nudes tucked away near the art book section. On the first floor one can view a dozen portraits and landscapes from the artist.

Finding relaxation through art

Born and raised in Minnesota, Goulet attended Macalester College in St. Paul. He didn’t major in art, but took a lot of electives in the subject including sculpture as a junior. “In those days it was unlikely for people from the working classes to think of trying to make a living as an artist.” He studied political science, and then went on to law school before changing careers for business and going to work for Arthur D. Little.

Over 40 years ago while he was living in Acton, his wife Rosie encouraged him to take a watercolor course at the deCordova Museum in Lincoln. He recalls that his first assignment was to paint an apple and to paint it “big.” When he proudly took his painting home, his wife complimented him on his “very interesting tomato.” While that course was the only one he took at the deCordova, watercolor painting soon emerged as his preferred hobby. He and his wife bought land in Carlisle and built a house in 1980.

After retiring from Arthur D. Little in 1995, Goulet turned more attention to his hobby. He has had two shows, one in New York and one in Minneapolis, and began selling paintings. His first wife passed away from cancer in 1996. He married his current wife, Florence, in 2000. She is one of his preferred subjects for portraits. (See the June 18, 2010 issue for a feature to learn more about this interesting educator from southwestern Uganda and their fascinating romance.)

Creating a work worth keeping

Goulet begins every piece with observation. He called observation about 85% of the job, and actually applying the paint only 15%. He starts his realistic portraits with light sketching, and his landscapes with no more than a horizon line. “You can’t be too detailed, because that’s the paint’s job.” He describes the watercolor process as working from light to dark. Any white comes from the paper itself, so he said the artist must show care in layering “washes” of the darker colors. He explained, “With oil paint, it’s pretty much the opposite – you put in your light highlights at the end.” 

His basic materials are simple: a circular plastic organizer with trays for paints and a cylinder in the middle for pencils, a dish for mixing paints, and a water basin (an old margarine container). He believes in purchasing high-quality brushes, paints, and rag paper from an art store. One of his most important tools is very inexpensive and mundane: paper towels. The artist uses them to “remove pigment from the paper to create highlights. For example, to paint a dark-skinned person you start with a light wash of brown with a touch of red and yellow. But even the darkest skin has spots where the light hits which are almost white. So while the first wash is still wet, you gently touch the paper towel to the surface to remove all but just a hint of the color. This takes much longer than applying the wash – you’re hovering over it like a helicopter parent for ten minutes, with just another touch here and there until it’s right.”

Goulet recommends that anyone interested in going beyond the basics should take a watercolor course. He noted that a little technique can save beginners a lot of wasted time. He also believes that you can find inspiration in working with other painters. His own best advice is to know when to stop and just leave a watercolor alone. And he added that it’s also important to recognize when a piece just doesn’t work, to discard it, and to start something new.  ∆