The Age of Pop Art: A talk with Monica Ahanonu

Monica’s vector illustration of Tracee Ellis Ross taken from her Instagram profile

By Daniella Ekundayo

Who is Monica Ahanonu? Tell the readers a bit about the women behind the illustrations.

I’m a former competitive gymnast of fourteen years, one of four siblings, an Arizona native and a lover of fashion and design. I’m obsessed with colour theory. From playing with, to observing all the different combinations of colour that we see on a daily basis. These same colours subconsciously choreograph our mood and the decisions we make. I’m an expert at Guitar Hero and I also don’t like to wear the same combination of clothing twice.

A picture of Monica taken by photographer Britney Gill @brit_gill

When did you realise that you wanted to pursue a career as an artist?

I realised fairly early on in my life, that I wanted to pursue a creative career. I always loved taking photos, writing my own scripts, drawing my own magazines and creating calendars for my friends during my childhood. In regard to being an illustrator, that part came later on as I developed my artistic style during my junior and senior year at USC.

When I first started at USC I hadn’t taken any drawing classes, so I initially thought I wasn’t meant to be on the artistic side of the industry. I struggled in many of my hand-drawing and painting classes.

“Things took a turn for the best when I got my first internship at DreamWorks Animation.”

I learnt all about the different artistic roles that are required to create a feature film. This allowed me to learn about other areas where I felt I could contribute as an artist based on my skills. After I graduated college I also had a strong interest in being a creative producer. I knew my skills weren’t strong enough to land me an artistic role at DreamWorks Animation right out of undergrad, so I decided to pursue my creative producing interest.

I started as a production assistant on a DreamWorks Animation feature film directly after graduation. As I continued to work as a PA, I noticed that my interests and drive were pushing me to the artistic side. I would spend many hours outside of the studio working on my art, learning from the artist at work, so I could get myself to a point where I would be strong enough to work as a professional artist. I had many mentors that I worked with.

I would have them give me small assignments and deadlines, so I could get myself to a level that would allow me to smoothly transition into an artistic position. A level that would allow me to continue my career as an artist in the entertainment industry if it didn’t end up being at DreamWorks Animation. Towards the end of July 2015, I started my first day as an artist at DreamWorks Animation.

Wow, that’s amazing! Working for such a big organisation must be so rewarding. How would you describe your artistic style?

I would describe my artistic style as vibrant, minimal, abstract, design oriented and pleasing to the eye. I love design and playing with proportions, as well as attempting to combine two colours that you may not expect to work together well. I think I’ve always been this way – when I make two colours work together that aren’t usually seen together I get a weird satisfaction and excitement. I feel insanely accomplished. Then, I’ll usually look around the room to nod my head at someone who agrees but quickly realise I am alone in my apartment.

A vector illustration by Monica taken from her Instagram profile

Haha, you’re not alone. I get that same satisfaction and excitement when writing, it’s a great feeling doing something that you love to do! Can you name some artists that you look up to?

There are many artists I look up to and I feel that Instagram has helped me to find new ones to look up to everyday. I’m sure I will forget some names since I am such a visual person, but here goes:

Illustrators and Painters: Eyvind Earle, Maurice Noble, Charley Harper, Lou Romano, Saul Bass, Paul Rand, Robert Valley, Ramone / Chris Zibach, Devin Crane, Donald, Beth Fraser, “Drawbertson” Robertson, Kevin Dart, Joe Moshier, Christophe Lautrette, Laura Berger and Peter Chan.

Photographers: Dapper Lou, A_kid_named_trav and Nadine Ijewere.

Musicians: Solange Knowles, A$AP Rocky, Jaraé Hollieway and Mobolaji Dawodu.

That’s a great set and a bunch of new illustrators to be on the lookout for. Are there any illustrators you would particularly like to work with in the future?

Any of the ones I’ve mentioned above! Some I’ve already worked with but would work with again. The ones I haven’t already I would love to work with them!

What do you hope to bring to the industry that is different and unique?

I would love to bring back or introduce more portrait illustrations in magazines, perhaps combining illustration with the photoshoot spreads you see.

A picture of Monica taken by Rachel Gist @_rachelgist

It would be great to see that coming through. What life lessons have you gained along the way? What advice can you give to other freelance illustrators going forward?

Since I’ve only been working as a full-time freelancer for about three months now, I don’t have a ton of advice in that area. However, I will say keep an open mind about creativity, the medium or industry you want to make an impact in. It is very easy to get laser-focused on one type of creative outlet or art style and attempt to force yourself to make it happen, when it might not be the right path for you.

When this happens, take a step back and give something else a shot. Sometimes when you allow your creativity to come out in a different form, such as cooking, dancing, dressing up, rearranging your apartment or using a different medium it can help your mind relax and wander. Thus, allowing your natural creativity and passions to come through. I think I said this before, so much creativity comes from putting yourself outside of your comfort zone, living through the discomfort or going so crazy that you can’t force anything and your natural creativity whatever it is, eventually comes out.

Monica’s vector illustration of Michaela Coel taken from her Instagram profile

Finally, where do you see yourself in the next five years?

In the next five years, I see myself having an established and defined brand. I would also like to have done a few collaborations with home goods companies. Hopefully, I’ll be doing some portraits for magazines on a regular basis, as well as having the ability to travel more for my craft.

Connect with Monica Ahanonu


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