How illustrator Monica Ahanonu drew her own path

After balancing on beams as a teenage gymnast, Monica Ahanonu chose to retrain to become an illustrative artist on her own terms.
Illustrator Monica Ahanonu 16x9 hero

Los Angeles-based artist Monica Ahanonu definitely didn't dream about being a highly sought-after illustrator when she was spending her teenage years training as a gymnast. 

However, after an injury left her unable to train, she taught herself digital animation. Since then she's moved through film production into a career as a freelance illustrator, designer and animator working for some of the biggest brands in the world. 

The drive of a gymnast 

Monica spent the early part of her life as a competitive gymnast. The sport, even from a young age, is incredibly demanding, requiring multiple hours of practice almost daily. Monica always enjoyed competing but, unlike many of her peers, the Olympics weren't her goal. ‘At camps, when coaches used to ask who wants to go to the Olympics, and everyone would scream and raise their hands, I would just think: no, I don't want to do that.’ College was a possibility, but then major injuries and surgeries put her out of commission for a while. 

‘I was used to being active [for] four hours a day, so I started to animate and draw my routines and teach myself [graphics editing software] Photoshop,’ she says. ‘I didn't even realize what I was doing – it was just a way to pass the time, but I knew I liked graphics, film and photography, and animation kind of combined those things.’ 

She even designed fan sites for all her favorite Disney characters. All this led her to apply to design and animation schools – eventually getting into her dream college, the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.  

Dreaming big at Dreamworks

While attending college, Monica interned at DreamWorks Animation studio across multiple departments. ‘That time on the production side helped me learn to think about and keep track of my creative work in a more organized way,’ she says. After graduation, she started working as a production assistant on feature films. ‘At the time, I was conflicted about becoming a creative producer versus an artist,’ she says. Yet, after a few years in production, she transitioned to the creative department as a motion graphics artist. 

After a few years, when DreamWorks was bought out and she was let go, Monica began thinking about making a change again. She decided to try her hand at illustration on a full-time freelance basis, having done some of this type of work during her employment. ‘I thought it was a good time to make a change and try something new, because I could always go back if it didn't work out.’

Success through social

After Monica went freelance, she began working with brands and publishers who often found her through Instagram. ‘I told myself I'd give myself a certain amount of time to try it, because I know freelancing isn't something you can just do easily right away. But I got lucky because I probably got, like, 90% of my work from Instagram.’ She ended up making things work pretty quickly – thanks to her distinctive style – and started attracting the attention of big-name clients. 

‘The first client I was super excited about was The New York Times, when they asked me to do a portrait of [Vogue editor-in-chief] Anna Wintour,’ she says. Since then she's worked with the likes of at-home gym equipment brand Peloton, Time magazine, software giant Adobe and countless others – creating portraits, clothing designs, books and more.

This article was first published in 100 Ways to Make a Living 2022. To purchase a copy or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

You might like these, too