Have you ever sat down with your thoughts to admire just how beautiful color is? Or deeply listen to the subliminal messages each vibrant hue communicates to your brain? In the world of visual arts, understanding color theory is an essential skill every artist must possess to convey their language. Illustrator and Motion Designer, Monica Ahanonu, is what many would consider an expert in color theory. As an artist whose work reaches eyes spanning across the globe, Ahanonu's artistry exudes visual storytelling of Black excellence that all languages can understand. 

Throughout this month of February, we partnered with Ahanonu to produce exclusive digital wallpaper for our email subscribers to download straight to their digital devices. I had the pleasure to speak with Ahanonu on what it means to represent Black culture, making the entrepreneurial leap into full-time, freelance work and where she gains her inspiration from. 

  1. Check out our exclusive interview with Monica Ahanonu below.
  2. 21Ninety: At what point in your life did you know that you wanted to be an artist? What is your earliest memory of your innate talent resonating within you?

Monica Ahanonu: For me, being an artist, the way I am currently, wasn’t something that came early in life. One thing that has always stuck out to me are words a classmate had said to me in the 6th grade. I spent the entire class period drawing a children’s book, afterward I read it to her, and while laughing out loud at my wild drawings, she said, “I swear, when you get older you’re going to be doing this for a living." That wasn’t the moment that I realized I would be an artist, but it has always been something I think is interesting because she saw how passionate I was and, perhaps, skilled in the craft before I even realized it. I really didn't think I was meant to be an artist until my junior year of college.

Illustration: Monica Ahanonu

Growing up, I knew I wanted to work in a creative environment but my first creative interests were in the world of photography. For many years, I thought that was what I was going to do. During the summer between 8th and 9th grade, I had surgery on both of my feet. I had to sit around for 2 months while I was in a wheelchair. This was a big change from my normal active lifestyle — training in gymnastics for 4 hours every day. During that time of my injury, I started to explore other things I could do with my always moving, creative mind. I would take photos then transfer them onto the computer so that I could edit and add graphics, my goal was to make my graphics look like things you saw on the Disney Channel. I taught myself how to use Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Premiere, and would animate gymnastics routines because I was unable to do them at the time. By the time I entered high school, I continued to edit photos and create graphics on my computer in my spare time. When it came time to apply to colleges, I sent the graphics and animations that I had created to various schools not thinking that I would be accepted — being that I hadn’t taken any art classes in high school — but my mom was so encouraging and pushed me to apply anyway. After I was accepted to various art programs, I realized this may be something that I could fully pursue! 

For a long time, I thought that my acceptance to the USC Program was a mistake because I felt I was so far behind my peers, as they all had such strong drawing skills when they arrived at the school. Long story short, I realized I had some talent with color and design after meeting with various artists at DreamWorks Animation. While I was an intern, I received a lot of positive reactions to my illustrations and color combinations that I thought were things that everyone naturally understood how to do. This really helped me fully believe that my interests in becoming an artist professionally were valid and possible.

Illustration: Monica Ahanonu

21N: It’s well-known in the art world that color theory is a fundamental principle in uniting the relationship with colors and how we perceive them. Your body of work with using color theory thoroughly appears to uphold the practical and physiological impact certain colors have on our eyes. Personally, I am drawn to its beauty. Can you describe your reasoning for using color theory? How do you define your illustration style?

MA: I love the way a piece feels when you mix two very vibrant colors that seem to flow together in harmony, there is a feeling I get when I am finishing a piece and I can just feel how well the colors I’ve put together flow. That’s the only way I can figure out how to describe it because it’s entirely a feeling for me when I am working with colors. I usually start with a bold background and then as the piece goes on, I proceed based on feeling what colors and accents would create that excitement within me when they are combined, and that’s when I know the combination is right. If my colors are too simple or straight forward I usually don’t get as excited. I love combining two bold colors that you wouldn’t normally see together and playing with their saturation or value until they mesh together just right. I would define my illustration style as bold, geometric and energizing.

Illustration: Monica Ahanonu

21N: Where do you gain your inspiration from?

MA: I gain a lot of my inspiration from fashion looks that I see, I love fashion so much because you can really get funky and wild with the combinations and it is another craft, or area of life, where you can combine two things that, separately, you would think they wouldn’t work together at all, but then with the correct colors and silhouette it can look so beautiful. So, I am often inspired by various silhouettes I see in the fashion world. In addition to fashion, I am inspired by nature. Objects in nature are so imperfectly-perfect. I like creating a piece that, at first glance, it looks like everything is even and perfectly aligned, but when you look closer and at more of the details, you realize there are these tiny areas where things are slightly off or crooked, but as a whole the visual feels even and the way it's supposed to be.

Illustration: Monica Ahanonu 

21N: Who are some visual artists and painters that move you artistically?

MA: This one is difficult because I look to so many people and artists for inspiration. I have a saved collection on my Instagram and anytime I see something inspiring I just save it — it's a large collection of things from all over. Overall, visual artists, designers, painter, IG accounts that move me artistically are:

Maybe Yes, Maybe No Magazine

Solange

@v93oo

Jacquemus

Dapper Lou

Lisa Folawiyo Studio

Donald Robertson

Iris Van Herpen

Peter Chan

Mobolaji Dawodu

Kevin Dart

Reese Blutstein

A$AP Rocky

Trevor Stuurman

21N: AfroPunk describes your work as expressive portraits that honor Black creatives and “bring an extra dimension to each subject.” Why is it important to represent Black figures and Black culture in a positive and uplifting light?

MA: I was fortunate to be raised in an environment that was very diverse and accepting of who I am. Representing Black figures and Black culture in a positive light comes naturally to me because it is what I have been surrounded by, and fully believe. I think that belief and mindset come off in my art in the way I show Black figures because, I have no doubt in my mind, that we as people of color are just as capable and strong as anyone else. In addition, I want to share that belief and make others understand our worth and value.

Illustration: Monica Ahanonu 

21N: You mentioned that prior to becoming a freelance illustrator and motion designer, you worked at DreamWorks Animation studio. What has been the most rewarding aspect since making the entrepreneurial leap into full-time, freelance work?

MA: The most rewarding part of making the leap from full-time to freelance work has been the variety of industries I’ve been able to work in. Although I miss my co-workers and being around so many people that felt like family on a daily basis, I really love the variety of assignments that I receive working as a freelancer.

Illustration: Monica Ahanonu for BuzzFeed UK

21N: What projects can we expect to see from you in the near future?

MA: Most upcoming projects I can’t speak about, but you can definitely keep your eye out for a few projects coming out for Black History Month. In addition, I have a children’s book coming out later in the spring about the life of Serena Williams titled Serena: The Littlest Sister

21N: Do you have any words of encouragement or advice for Black women striving to break into the art world? 

MA: I am going to add below what I said in my IG takeover with Blavity:

1. Send a lot of emails and do informational interviews. Reach out to people you admire, would like to work with or are interested in learning from. Find mentors for the different areas of your life.

2. Meet everyone and don't ever refuse a meeting. Pick their brains. You can learn so much from the people you meet even if they aren't in your industry. Successful people always have something to offer you in some area of your life.

3. Use a planner or calendar and make lists. This allows you to see the gaps in your schedule where you can fit time to work on your side hustle and passions outside of school or a full-time job.

4. Know your industry. Research the industry you want to get into: the steps it takes to get a job in that industry, the specific job(s) you want in that industry. Research what the day-to-day is like for someone doing the job you want and see if that's a day-to-day lifestyle you would enjoy.

5. Keep yourself motivated by putting up quotes and affirmations around your living space or reminders in your phone that keeps you in a positive mindset throughout your day.

6. Diversify your friends not just by race, but by age. You learn so much from people that have either gone through what you are going through or younger people who may be more knowledgeable about specific new technologies or trends taking off.

7. Be mindful of what you consume visually every day. Follow people and things on social media that inspire you and motivate you. If you feel something isn't serving you mentally or lifting you up mentally, just hit that unfollow button.

8. Do what makes you excited, do what you are excited about and interested in that very moment and if that interest changes, that's okay. If you are really passionate about something, you will focus on it and become very good at it faster than something you are forcing yourself to do.


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