In the Monart world, everyone can draw

Rappahannock County is a community filled with, among other things, quite a few talented artists. But for those who might believe they lack that natural artistic flair that seems so common in the region, there is still hope. It’s a drawing technique called Monart, which eliminates the idea of “mistakes” from artwork and ensures anyone can draw a picture they’ll be proud of.

And it’s being taught in Flint Hill right now.

An example of the outlines Zylonis uses when initially drawing a picture in front of the class.
An example of the outlines Zylonis uses when initially drawing a picture in front of the class.

Monart is the brainchild of Mona Brookes, who originally developed the method in 1979 in conjunction with reading programs for kindergarten through sixth graders. Suzanne Zylonis, who is Wakefield Country Day School’s art teacher and has has been a Monart advocate for 10 years, believes part of the appeal lies in the technique’s simplicity.

“Monart breaks every drawing down into five different shapes – dots, circles, straight lines, curved lines and angle lines,” said Zylonis.

Any shape that loops back around and connects to itself is considered a “circle,” but a dot can be any amorphous shape as long it’s colored in. This way, even extremely complex pieces can be broken down and understood within the Monart universe.

Zylonis breaks each drawing down into these simple shapes and then draws the picture at the same time as the students. It’s a silent exercise at first, with rapid-fire instructions from Zylonis, and requires the students to listen carefully, which helps build skills the students can use outside the canvas.

In addition to boosting self-confidence, Zylonis and the Monart style help develop listening and direction-following skills, as well as more complex concepts like spatial relationships. Zylonis even incorporates some math concepts like parallel lines and varying degrees of angles.

“They may not completely grasp the whole concept, but at least now they’re familiar with it,” Zylonis said.

The concept of “mistakes,” however, isn’t used in Monart. “There are no erasers in the classroom,” Zylonis said. If someone makes draws a “line-they-don’t-want,” rather than getting frustrated and starting the whole drawing over, they put hash marks through it and draw a new line.

It’s this “choreography” that the students find appealing. Each drawing is done on newsprint (a semi-transparent drawing paper) in permanent marker, ensuring students are – temporarily – stuck with their drawing, “lines-they-don’t want” and all.

That same toucan outline after being colored in and personalized.
That same toucan outline after being colored in and personalized.

“It’s excellent for learning,” Zylonis said. “It teaches them you can’t be afraid to incorporate your mistakes.”

Once the initial drawing/listening exercise is complete, the students take their drawings over to one of the light tables and trace their initial drawings onto nicer drawing paper. Any line with a hash mark through it is simply ignored in the tracing process, ensuring each student ends up with a picture they like, and one free of any “lines-they-don’t-want.”

“There’s no constant need for approval,” Zylonis said. “This way, the kids make themselves happy.”

After tracing, Zylonis lets the students color in their drawing using any colors or medium they want, personalizing each drawing in exactly the way each student wants. Sometimes Zylonis plays music while the students add color, enlivening the classroom and creating a contrast between the beginning and end of each class period.

“Sometimes the kids just need a quick break from academics,” Zylonis added.

Zylonis, who also owns Sperryville Pottery, has been teaching art at Wakefield for almost a decade, but insists that the transition to the Monart style was the idea of Kathy Tredway, a patron of the school who also helped originate the school’s annual Art from the Heart showcase and fundraiser.

About 10 years ago, Tredway hired a Monart specialist to come to Rappahannock County and teach a seminar on the style. Every educator in the county was invited and met in the Rappahannock County Elementary School library for a few days over the summer. Later, Tredway also personally paid for a teacher for Zylonis, who wasn’t actively teaching art at Wakefield during the initial training phase.

Each of the “chip-monks” in this painting was drawn by a different second grader, traced over and colored in before finally being assembled into this painting. Courtesy photo.
Each of the “chip-monks” in this painting was drawn by a different second grader, traced over and colored in before finally being assembled into this painting. Courtesy photo.

Before Monart, Wakefield students hadn’t had a unified art experience; different teachers in different years taught different styles, preventing any sense of continuity. Now, students from preschool through upper classmen at Wakefield are all taught the same program.

Zylonis said she emphasizes Monart more heavily in the first half of a semester in an effort to “build up the students’ confidence,” before moving onto other, potentially more difficult, projects.

Confidence is key to success however, and after spending months reinforcing that in every art student, Zylonis is confident that Rappahannock’s supply of up-and-coming artists won’t run out anytime soon.