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Creating an Illustrator Portfolio with Shar Tui'asoa

We’re excited to feature Shar Tuiasoa! She is a world-renowned artist and the author/illustrator of Punky Aloha and the illustrator of the forthcoming books Already All the Love by Diana Farid (December 2024, Little Bee Books) and Our Sacred Mountain: An Ode to Mauna Kea by ‘Ilima Todd (March 2025, HarperCollins). 

More about Shar can be found on her website and on her Instagram.

Below is the transcript to our IG live where the interview took place. It has been edited for readability and is not an exact transcription of the video. 

Kealani: Welcome to our Instagram live with Pacific Islanders in Publishing. I am Kealani Netane. I’m one of the cofounders. I’m also the author of Tala Learns to Siva, which just came out last week. 

We’re here with Shar Tuiasoa. She is a world-renowned artist. I can’t even list all the places that her art has been. It’s too many, but we’ll just focus on the books part. She is the author/illustrator of Punky Aloha, which came out a couple years ago. Then, a book coming out this year, Already All the Love by Diana Farid and then next year, Our Sacred Mountain: an Ode to Mauna Kea by ʻIlima Todd . 

You have the opportunity to be an author/illustrator and just the illustrator. I feel like those are two very different roles.

Shar: Yes, absolutely. 

Kealani: Is there anything else you want to share about yourself before we dive in?

Shar: I never really know what to say. I just love to draw and I’m so grateful I get to do it every day. 

Kealani: I feel like you’re just a beloved person. I feel like now you’re a household name. Everybody knows you.

Ok, but we’ll get into the craft. Shar has a bunch of interviews where she talks about her personal work and all of those things. Today we’re just going to be talking about illustrator portfolios. This is a topic that I’ve really been wanting to get into with Shar because there are so few Pacific Islander book illustrators, especially those that are interested in traditional publishing. 

There are specific expectations that publishers have for illustrators. Us, as Pacific Islander creators, we may not know about that so I wanted to dive into that with Shar a little bit. 

First question, what is an illustrator portfolio and why do book illustrators need one?

Shar: A portfolio for an illustrator is basically us putting forth our best work to show potential clients, publishers what we do, how we execute our work, at what level, what our skillset is, and what our voice is. That’s basically what a portfolio is. About 10-12 of your best works. And for a book illustrator, it’s really important when you make your portfolio to know what kind of work you want to do. A book illustration portfolio is completely separate. My book illustrations versus my freelance work are two separate worlds. It's important to be mindful of that because when publishers, editors, or writers are looking at your imagery for a book, they want to see how you tell a story very specifically for children. So, a book illustration portfolio is going to be more like samples of what illustrations would look like in a book, character interactions, and showing them how you tell stories because you are essentially going to be the voice for the author and they want to see what your voice sounds like. 

Kealani: Talking about voice, how do you craft your personal voice into that portfolio?

Shar: That always comes down to, again, style. This is something most illustrators talk about. We talked a lot about it in art school. There was always, well do I show people that I can do anything? I can do this style, this style, this style. Will that make me more valuable? Or, do I really try to find my specific voice? I side more with, you can be diverse. I think there’s value in having an identity. When people come to hire you, they know who you are and what they’re getting. You carve yourself out for them. It’s like a teamwork thing. It's a collaborative thing. 

Having your voice looks like hours and hours of drawing and finding the shape languages that help tell stories for you and understanding what visual language is and what that is for you. For me, that’s creating worlds that have rules. A big part of style is setting a limitation. Rules that you don’t break in certain worlds. Let’s say you have a world that is happy and joyful. I decide that entire world is going to be curvy and full of circles and a certain color palette versus a world that’s angry and aggressive. That’s all going to be triangles and points. You know what I mean? Like, creating these visual rules for yourself. It also shows the publishers that you’re mature as an artist and you’re really creating with intention. There’s a lot of intention that goes into creating things and that's a mature step for an artist to take. 

Kealani: Yeah, it does take a while to get there. It takes a lot of formulating, failure, and being able to manipulate your art into what you want to see in the world. So, how have you seen your failures over time impact who you are now, as an illustrator?

Shar: So many failures. You know, you try your best every time you’re creating artwork, but sometimes you know early on something’s just not going to work out. Or, you create something and it can be days later and you’re just like, that just wasn’t great and I don’t like the way this feels. I don’t like people thinking I’m terrible at my job. I don’t like people thinking these are the stories I want to tell. And taking that with me every time and remembering to put that in my toolbelt. Do not ever do this again. Or, don’t sacrifice this again. Or, learn to speak up. I think that’s a big one. 

When you are the visual artist and you’re working with a team and sometimes they’re like, it’s important we have this element and this element in there or take this out. But if you know that this was intentional and a part of the story, don’t be afraid to push back a little bit and explain to them why it’s there and then they might understand like, oh okay, that’s really important to keep in there. 

Finding your voice is something you learn along the way. Because at times I didn’t speak up, I ended up with this messy illustration I was really embarrassed about. That’s something I take with me is speaking up for myself when I feel it’s necessary and being brave enough to do that. It’s also really about being ready and accepting failure and getting, not excited to fail, but just accepting that a big part of the journey is failing and learning and failing and learning. Get excited about the fact that you are learning when you fail. It hurts much less the more you do it. 

Kealani: I love that. It’s so similar to writing. There’s so much of my writing that has just been trashed. I’m just like, ugh forget it. This is terrible. 

Shar: But you got it out, right? Like, you need to get it out to see that it’s terrible. 

Kealani: There’s an outlet and there’s a purpose to that outlet because then it helps you get to that place where you’re able to produce quality work. 

So, my next question. Back to the illustrator portfolios.There’s so many things that we have to choose. So you said, we should have about 10-12 images. What is your best advice for choosing what to include and what not to include?

Shar: Book illustrator portfolios are sort of specific. And, I don’t have all the answers. But I know that what I’ve always seen and what I’ve been told is they want to see character interaction. That’s a really big one. They want to see emotions. Very exaggerated emotions. They want to see sad. If your character is sad, they want to feel sad. If your character is happy, they want to see joy. And being able to express that. 

I think in a children’s book illustration portfolio, it’s important to show not just a finished illustration page, but maybe a page of character design of one character doing different things like running, jumping, feeling different emotions. Sketches, like really a strong sketch page. I think that’s appropriate. 

And if you’re completely lost, go to your bookstore, go to your nearest locally owned bookstore and go pick up some children’s books that you like, that you love, that you admire and look in their pages and say, let’s just take a line of this book and I’m just going to illustrate it my way. Make a mock portfolio. 

Submit work that looks like pages that you want to see in a book. A big thing is getting your hands on children’s books and finding illustrators that you admire and seeing how they problem solve. Find inspiration that way. Without copying them. But find inspiration in how other illustrators problem solve and how they tell stories and see how you can find your own voice that way. 

Oh, and animals! Animals are a popular one for children’s books. Animals, even inanimate objects. Just have fun. Remember that you’re worldbuilding. Jump inside your little imagination noggin there and draw the world that exists in there and have fun with it. 

Kealani: One thing I would just add is landscapes. Including water. I’m saying that because these are the things that I look for when I look at illustrator portfolios. I look at all those things, especially the emotion between characters, landscapes, including buildings, city, water, mountains. 

Shar: I don’t know if this is something we’re going to cover, but you can be such a good artist and you can maybe make art that goes on bags. You draw a bunch of fish or animals. So, you’re a good illustrator. You’re great at what you do. But, if you don’t have a dedicated portfolio for children’s book illustrations, for the most part, a publisher and an editor is not really going to look at your stuff. You just kind of have to show up prepared, you know? It’s so important to dedicate some time little by little. Have something ready when they’re looking.

Kealani: Yeah, and art directors are looking, I will say. They’re very much online. 

Shar: They’re very much online. And I think this is such an important thing especially for the underrepresented communities in children’s books. Us, being one of the most underrepresented, Pacific Islanders. I always say to greet opportunity with preparation. That’s something that was told to me a long time ago. That’s something I live for. That’s my motto. Opportunities will come and you never know when they’re coming and who they’re coming from. And when they come, they might just come once. So, you better be ready. 

There’s been a lot of times where personally, I’ve been approached for books for large publishing houses for really cool opportunities that are specifically for Pacific Islanders. They want a Pacific Islander illustrator and I can’t take it because I’m too busy or something and they’re like, okay can you give us some names of Pacific Islander illustrators with portfolios? And it’s really hard. You have to dig deep. You know what I mean? It’s just so important for us to just be prepared. Be ready for it because we have great stories to tell and we should be the ones telling them. The part we play in that is being prepared. Getting down, getting in your sketchbooks and making portfolios so when they come knocking, you’re ready. They’re ready, they want to hear our stories. We just have to be ready to tell them. 

Kealani: For people who aren’t sure where to put their portfolios, where would you say?

Shay: I personally think it’s important to have a landing page, have a website. I think you can get squarespace or another website for free to cheap. It’s good if you have a landing page, a dot com, that you can send people to that have your strong images up there. Your 10-12 images up there. Your works in progress up there. It gives all your information and everything. 

If you absolutely can’t have a website, then treat your instagram, treat your social media page as your portfolio. That’s free marketing. That’s how I got my first book deal because my editor found me on Instagram. And I treat my social media page very much as a portfolio. Even though I have an actual portfolio on my website, I treat my Instagram specifically as my portfolio. I don’t put a bunch of family photos up there. I don’t take crappy pictures of half-ass sketches. I’m really intentional about it. I consider what art directors are looking at this. Who’s really looking at this. And if you can’t get a website, I would say that’s your next best bet. 

But find some way. Even if you have a PDF. You can just do that. You can have a PDF ready to go and send it to people like Kealani who runs pages that is like a landing page for a lot of people. I’ve sent art directors to the Pacific Islanders in Publishing page and they’re like holy cow! Look at all of these Pacific Islanders. Get in your community and if you can only just put together a PDF of your 12 images and just have it ready for when someone comes knocking. Like, have it ready. That’s my biggest advice is just have something ready to share. 

Kealani: That’s amazing. I’ve received the same advice too. Just be prepared when people come. 

Shay: You never know.

Kealani: So, we talked a little bit about that preparation. To be prepared. Are there any other advice that you received early on in your career that has been the most helpful for you now?

Shay: I think it all comes down to that. Being prepared is a big one for me. Another one I think that I shied away from a lot when I was first coming up studying art was that I was always afraid to look at other people’s artwork. I didn’t want to be influenced or something ridiculous like that. A big piece of advice for me is to look at other people’s artwork. You know, dive in and obsess over it. I can’t stop looking at it. And I’m not looking at it so I can copy it. I’m just looking at it to feel inspired. To be immersed in art. To be admiring other people who are also obsessed with art. 

A big piece of advice is to immerse yourself in this world. Be obsessed with it. Buy children’s books. Go to the library and borrow children’s books. You know, just be about it! That and draw, draw, draw. 

If it’s difficult for you to sit down and draw. If it’s painful for you to sit down and draw, maybe we need to think about finding a way to express yourself that is fun because maybe drawing is not it. You could do paper cutouts. Maybe writing is it. Be in love with what it is that you want to do because if you start getting busy you’re going to be doing it all the time. 

Kealani: And there are different mediums for children’s books. Like Shar said, there’s paper cutouts. There’s some, I can’t think of them off the top of my head, but there are some. 

Shar: Christian Robinson {Shar held up the picture book, You Matter by Christian Robinson}. Well, I came prepared. Christian Robinson is one of my favorites and he does a lot of paper cutouts that he paints over. He has so much fun. Ryan Riller. He’s a Disney gallery artist. Cutouts and they’re incredible. You know, it’s such a fun way.

Kealani: Oge Mora. She’s one of my favorites.

Shar: Exactly. Like it doesn’t have to be pen to the paper. Here’s another, Jon Klassen {Shar held up the picture book, This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen}. He has a lot of fun with different materials. It doesn’t have to be drawing. There’s no rules. You can do photography. And I’m like, it’s storytelling. You know? I mean, the world is your oyster. 

Kealani: And that’s a big part of picture books is that there’s the text and there’s the pictures so they’re in conjunction with each other telling the story. Sometimes in illustrations, there’s layers upon layers of other stories going on while the text is being written. Shar’s completely correct. Illustrators are storytellers. 

Shar: Thank you!

Kealani: One thing we didn’t touch on yet is feedback. How do people get feedback for their art, especially their portfolios? Is that a big part of illustrators? I know it’s a huge part for writers, but I’m not sure about illustrators. 

Shar: It’s a little harder to access if you’re not in an academic setting where you have professors, teachers, and classmates all in that same world all just kind of analyzing your artwork. If you aren’t able to go to art school, and you don’t have to, you’re going to YouTube University. Then, you need to reach out to your community. Community should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind all the time anyways. And that looks like different things. And sometimes when you lean on your community, it’s for feedback. 

Look at your local artists. Reach out to them. People reach out to me. I’m down. Send me your portfolio. I’m down to look at it. Or, connect with you guys {Pacific Islanders in Publishing}. I think that’s important. There’s any number of ways. Reach out to artists that you like and just simply ask. It doesn’t hurt to ask, can you just look at my stuff and tell me what you think? Or, can you look at this one image and tell me how I can elevate it or what’s wrong with it? 

I will tell you that a lot of us artists love to talk about art. It is our favorite thing to do so don’t tempt me with a good time. But also be sure to grow a thick skin and understand too that when you’re getting that feedback, it’s all love. It’s not to make you feel like you’re bad at what you’re doing. It’s really that we want you to be your best self too. Like, I see an issue here and an issue here. And, fix it. And, look at that as an opportunity to grow. Don’t be afraid to ask and have your work dissected a little bit. It’s always all love and we all want to elevate each other. If you’re in the right community, you guys all want to elevate each other at least.

Kealani: And I think too with feedback is that the people who are giving the feedback, it’s not that they are critiquing so harshly, it’s as you said they want you to elevate. It’s also up to the artist however they take that critique. It’s their vision. We’re just giving our opinions. We have lots of opinions. 

Shar: Exactly. Sometimes you might just be like, okay I totally disagree. You know what I mean? And that’s up to you. That’s on you. But it’s a good way to grow your friendship circle too in just meeting other artists and like minded people who want to geek out over children’s books and illustration or storytelling in general. It’s a great way to feel that you’re safe and you’re supported. 

Kealani: So what advice do you have specifically for Pacific Islanders who want to go into book illustrating?

Shar: Please do it. My advice is to just find a way to find time to make that portfolio. And please understand that we are storytellers. That is our culture. That is who our ancestors were. And it’s a little sad that we’re so underrepresented in the storytelling space. Take that as your responsibility. You know what I mean? Like, we have to do this. To do that, we have to put in the work. And if sometimes it’s a little difficult, reach out. My advice for Pacific Islanders specifically is to make a portfolio even if you started with five images. Even five, that’s better than nothing. And, take yourself seriously. We belong in this arena. We have yet to tell even just a small fraction of the stories out there. Stories from our past, stories right now, stories in the future. We’ve got so much to share and we’re just barely starting. So, get in there. There’s just room for so many. That’s what I think.

Kealani: There really is and I feel like publishers, like you said, are really looking for our work and they are looking for our illustrators. I’ve talked to a couple art directors and they’re very interested in our art. They just haven’t seen portfolios that follow those specific expectations that you have, that Shar has laid out for us here today. 

Shar: If there’s ever an opportunity for a children’s book workshop, let me know. Maybe it’s something we can all work on. But, never be afraid to DM me. I’m always down to look at stuff. Most of us are. 

Kealani: We did have one question that wasn’t about book illustration. The person asked, “Can you ask Shar, if we wanted to paint a mural on our wooden garage door, what kind of medium should we use?”

Shar: I love it! Wood, I would say, prime it and use house paint. House paint is great. I use house paint. I think that’s good enough. Easier to color match over there and you can use sample paints. House paint is fine. I paint most of my murals with house paint. It’s enough.

Kealani: There you go. That’s the tea on what paint to use. 

Anything else you would want to share? Actually, I do have one more question about book illustration. So, you were an author/illustrator for Punky Aloha and then you have just the illustration side and you didn’t do the text for your next two books. So what are the differences between doing the text and then not doing the text?

Shar: Obviously being the author and the illustrator was a lot easier. It was freeing. It was a story about me. So what is the art director going to say? No Shar, that’s not your vision? You know what I mean? It was more free and I kind of just showed them what I wanted to do and they were like, great! Make a few changes here and there and we’re off. But when you’re working with somebody else, the author of course has their own vision. And the publishers and the editors kind of have things that they want to see too. Maybe a certain finish. Or, stuff that you might say, but my vision is this. And they’re like, well our vision is this. So you have to just let go a little bit as you always do when you’re working with a client. I’ll say it’s a little intimidating because especially for working on something with like ‘Ilima’s book for something so serious and powerful as the Mauna Kea protests. I just want her to be happy with it. I want the community to be happy with it. I really really want to get this one right. So the pressure can be a little overwhelming and I think you just have to pace yourself a little bit with that. But it’s a push and pull. It’s a lot of work, but you learn a lot through that process. Being able to translate somebody’s beautiful words into imagery that hopefully elevates it. That’s a lot of pressure, but it’s fun. It’s a fun challenge. 

Kealani: I’m so excited for your two books that are coming out. I can’t wait. If you didn’t know, Already All the Love is a board book and then An Ode to Mauna Kea is a regular picture book. So exciting. Let me double check if anybody else had questions. But that’s all the questions I had for you. Is there anything else that you wanted to share?

Shar: I can’t think of anything. I’m just really excited that we’re at this place now. I mean, our kids are going to grow up seeing Pacific Islander books on all the bookshelves across the world and I think that it’s a really exciting time to get into the space of storytelling. 

Kealani: Yup, it’s so exciting. So, we do have a question from Corina. It says, “as an illustrator do you have to know book formatting before you create your illustration portfolio?” That’s a great question. 

Shar: I haven’t had to, personally. I don’t know how all publishers work. The publishers I’ve worked with kind of spaced it for me for the most part, which is extremely helpful. They have a page designer that paces the story for you or the author will. Did you pace your book?

Kealani: I didn’t. I’m too intimidated to do that.

Shar: Me too.

Kealani: I’ll let the professional do that. 

Shar: I think if you’re independently publishing your book, you’re going to have to because you have to basically do all the work. But if you’re working with a publisher, for the most part, they have designers that will pace it for you and they send you the template and they even give you the idea of where everything’s going to be placed. And you just illustrate around it. But you can also have a say. Like, I think it’s more powerful if this line is there or there. But I don’t think you have to worry about that unless you’re publishing independently. 

Kealani: Most picture books are either 32 pages or 40 pages so they’ll lay out that whole template for you and you just have to come up with sketches and ideas for your illustrations. 

We have another question from Jacob. He said, “how can non-Pacific Islander artists best support our Pacific Islander friends?”

Shar: I feel like we support each other just by being in community. It’s hard to say other than it’s always good to check to see if something’s missing from a space. I don’t know how else to say it. If you see AAPI lists for instance that are missing the PI, feel free to say something. The best way to support is to support any way we support each other. Be excited for us. LIft us up and we’ll lift you up too. 

Kealani: That’s the best thing about our community is that we’re so community oriented that when someone’s our friend, we’re like oh yeah, come on. Let’s be friends. 

Shar: Come on! Come play!

Kealani: I think that’s all the questions we have for you unless something comes up. We’re hoping that this IG live will save. I’ve never saved an IG live before so we’ll see how good my technological skills are. 

But thank you so much, Shar, for coming on our live with us today. We will definitely be in conversation about different developmental opportunities or workshops that we can do together to help have more Pacific Islander book illustrators in our industry. Yes, that’s it. Have a great afternoon. 

Shar: Thank you so much for having me! Bye. A hui hou.


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