Behind the print: "Misty St Paul's"

Michael Reid’s atmospheric London views and his vibrant, semi-abstract landscapes are being showcased in his featured artist exhibition, which runs from June 7-27. He talks about how he used sugar lift aquatint to create St Paul's emerging from the mist, and why he likes to combine a variety of printmaking processes in his work.


"Misty St Paul's", sugar lift aquatint etching and woodcut, by Michael Reid

What was it about this view that made you want to make a print about it?

I’ve always been enthralled by great architecture, old and new, and when I decided I’d like to make some prints of London, St Paul’s was right at the top of my list. The dome makes such an iconic image. It’s the subject of one of my first prints, and also my latest one.


Why did you choose the sugar lift aquatint technique for this print?

I had to move away from etching stylus drawing (using my natural left hand) when I started to develop a condition called essential tremor. This pushed me to find alternative means to continue to make images. Sugar lift mark-making, using my right hand and a flat-headed small brush, with which I dab-draw, offered a real alternative. I love the painterly quality of the sugar lift aquatint technique.

I’m comforted in my enforced use of alternative techniques by many artists – including one of my favourites, Matisse, with his coloured paper cut-outs.


The Camp Coffee Michael uses to draw on the plate

Can you describe your process for making sugar lift aquatints?

I prefer to use Camp Coffee, difficult to find now, rather than the ‘official’ medium for the drawing. It has something of a life of its own, which I like. Camp Coffee is a post-Second World War cheap mix of minimal caffeine and lots of chicory and sugar.

After drawing on the copper plate with the Camp Coffee, the whole surface is flooded with an opaque varnish. The magical bit follows – when boiling water is poured over the image, the sugar dissolves, “lifting” the varnish above it, revealing the image in negative.

The plate then goes through a dot-making process called aquatinting, before going into the acid to ‘bite’ into the metal. It is then finally inked up for printing.


The image on the plate is revealed in negative when the sugary Camp Coffee drawing is dissolved in boiling water

In many of your prints, including "Misty St Paul's", you use a combination of printmaking techniques. Etching and woodcut are not usually used in the same print – what made you think to do that?

I think my graphic design background continues to influence my printmaking in that, rather than remain within one discipline and subject matter, I enjoy an amount of variety. As a designer, you always respond to the specifics of a new brief and go in the direction dictated by that brief, inevitably leading to a range of solutions. You always hope, of course, that something of your style is discernible through all your work.

I like the different effects that can be achieved through a combination of techniques. As well as working on the images in my home studio, I use a variety of printmaking workshops and facilities.


"Rooftops of London Looking East", etching and linocut, by Michael Reid

Do you sketch outside or take photographs?

My preparation for prints usually includes a mixture of sketches and reference photos for details, as well as images seen elsewhere. I think I’ve explored just about every angle of St Paul’s that’s accessible from the South Bank.

Like any great city, the London skyline is fascinating and ever-changing, a constant source of unusual viewpoints.