Donald Montileaux: Ledger Drawings, Books, Paper & Care

In this episode, artist Donald Montileaux tells us why creating ledger drawings are culturally important to him and also explains his technique and the importance of good materials - ledger books, the unique physical qualities of the paper, and their history - and what he does to ensure the longevity of his drawings.

[Donald Montileaux] I live in 2 cultures. I live in the European culture and the Native culture, and my art is a good marriage for that because I'm half French and half Native - the European side is the ledger book and all the writing, that's European too, but then the image on top of that is my Native side…and together they make a really beautiful statement. They bear our history…and that's a good way of presenting my art [ledger drawings], especially for me as a Native artist.

[Rose] Right…so no denying either part of your heritage, but a perfect melding of both.

[Donald] And the beauty of each. Individually, each can stand alone, but together, there is a beauty that can be achieved.

[Donald refers to some ledger drawings he's been working on] Well, these two drawings that I'm working on today are on paper from my old, antique ledger books.

[Rose] Where do you find an old, antique ledger book? Do you just go around to antique book stores or do you have friends that collect them?

[Donald] Yes, I have friends that collect them for me - I've been doing this for so long that everybody in the world knows I need ledgers. When I go to different shows throughout the country, people will bring me books. So what I'll do is barter for them - I'll draw an image on one of the pages and give it to the person who brought me the book.

[Ledger books differ in size, some are long and narrow and others are larger and more square.]

[Rose] Do you have a preferred size or is it more about the paper?

[Donald] I like the paper, regardless of the size. The dates are important - [Donald refers to a few pieces of ledger paper laying on his table] this one is dated 1896. The quality of paper is also very important and the other thing is that it's written on, which adds credibility to the piece.

[Looking at one of his pages, Donald explains more] This piece of paper is probably from a shop keeper's ledger (it also has the name of the individual at the top) and this was his account for maybe a year or two years running.

Each one of my drawings are also fresh. Each time I draw a drawing, I do it on a separate piece of paper and then I use transfer paper to pick up the lines, turn it over and redraw it again on the other side, and then transfer it onto the ledger paper. This saves the face of the ledger paper (for instance, I hardly ever use an eraser on the ledger paper). Then I add all my blacks and then go to my colors.

[Referring to another piece of ledger paper] On this page, right here…its dated 1903 and the quality of the paper is good. If you hold it up to a window, you can see the watermarks…and I love the writing. It's also very pliable…its really a nice paper.

One time when I was in an art show, I was visiting with a professor from the University of Pennsylvania. He asked if I know why my colors were so brilliant. I said "No, I really don't." He told me ledgers were actually made with a really high grade of paper; most of them were leather bound and made to last for a long, long time and the paper was made with strands of silken fiber. He explained that as I added my layers of color, I was actually burnishing them into the silken fibers and that's what making those vibrant colors possible.

[Rose] I know part of the concern with paper is whether or not it's acid free. Is there anything you do to the paper to insure that it's not going to eat through the image?

[Donald chuckles at this and explains…]
Well, most of the paper I use is probably a hundred plus years old already and I do have a spray. You just spray it on both sides and it neutralizes the acid in the paper. Then I put my stuff on it (which is all acid free), and then I spray it with a clear coat.

So I really am maintaining that paper for another 2 or 3 hundred years.

[Rose] So with that, you insure that image is going to stay true, as long as its taken care of - obviously if you're letting the sun shine on your artwork, it won't, but as long as you take care of it, it'll be around forever.

[Donald] I've seen my ledger pieces that are now 20 years old and they're still as crisp as the day I drew them because the owner takes care of it by putting UV glass on it to protect them from the sunlight.