The Real Poop
You like to doodle, you say? Well, isn't that nice?
Are you any good? Because you'd better be darn talented if you have any designs on actually making this line of work your livelihood. Being able to sketch that bear in the derby hat and bow tie isn’t going to get it done out there in the cutthroat world of illustrating. (Okay, so maybe it isn't exactly cutthroat, but you may have so much difficulty finding work that it will feel that way.)
The important thing is to understand what it means to be an illustrator today as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago. Back then, you were either helping kids envision what the interior of a chocolate factory looked like or you were out of work. Today there are so many more outlets for illustrators. You can create scenery for a video game, assist computer animators in the look and design of an animated short or feature, or help spice up a dry-looking website. You can also (and, to be fair, these opportunities have actually been around a while) create images for magazines or newspapers, design greeting cards, or draw characters to be displayed on the outside of cereal boxes. Better hurry on that last one though—there aren't too many cutesy animals that haven't been taken.
How manipulative can you get?
And yet for all the different options, it is extremely tough to make money doing it. Far too many people fancy themselves artists, and so there is intense competition at all levels for illustrating positions, as well as other jobs in the fine arts. Our advice is to be real with yourself, and trust the opinions of others. If no one seems to think you've got the raw talent it takes (including your Grandma Betsy, who thinks even your four-year-old brother has potential), and if there's even a small part of yourself that doubts this is your "calling," turn and run in the opposite direction as fast as you can. It ain't easy, and it don't pay.
Drawing for a living is an attractive option, and you may be interested in pursuing the craft because you feel that making art would make you happier than sitting in an office all day putting covers on TPS reports. You may very well be right. But keep in mind that those 9-to-5ers in their offices make good, regular money. They get to live in nice houses, drive nice cars, pay their bills without taking out a loan or asking their parents for money, and provide for their families to live comfortably. So while you may not absolutely love the prospect of a "normal person job," ask yourself if you're willing to chance sacrificing all of the other good stuff that comes along with it.
If you do have genuine talent and can't imagine doing anything else in the world (even if it means making your family starve just a tiny bit), then hopefully the information provided in this section will at least give you some insight as to what you can expect.
Because the variety of opportunities for illustrators is so vast these days, you may be working for a variety of employers. You could hook up with a greeting card company, do freelance work for marketing companies, or perhaps join forces with a children's author who loves your style and feels it is a perfect fit for his stories. (You're not sure how well a story about man-eating spiders is going to go over in the 5-to-8-year-old demographic, but you are not really in a position to turn things down.) Each of these examples, as well as the slew of other options that are out there for you, can pay anywhere between nada and lots (those are rough estimates). It depends on your level of ability, amount of involvement with a given company or companies, and frequency of work if freelancing, with a splash of pure luck thrown in there for good measure. Your friend's man-eating spider story may flounder and die and you won't make a cent from it, or it could be received by critics as "delightfully naughty" and you could be the next Quentin Blake. ("Who?" Exactly.)
Regardless of what avenue(s) you take to make your drawing-for-money scheme a reality, it is going to take incredible dedication on your part. If freelancing, you will need to pound the pavement constantly, gathering up the initiative to seek out opportunities on your own (you hopefully won't be living with your parents at this point, so they won't be there to hold your hand), and if your dream is to make it as a book illustrator, you will need to produce massive amounts of work in order to improve your odds. If you're putting all your success eggs in the man-eating spider basket, you're likely going to be in for a rude awakening.
It will also help you if you don't limit yourself to illustrating. If you draw, you probably paint. You may also have the artistic gene that makes for good writers. If you are skilled in multiple areas, consider attacking the markets on more than a single front. It will keep things from getting stale for you, and it may increase your chances of something taking off for you.
Take that, Wright Brothers!
While it is hard to make ends meet, illustrating can be an engaging, rewarding, and wonderful career path if you're able to make it work. You will never have to watch the clock tick down to 5 o'clock, and every new project will be a brand new challenge and experience. We could give you an example to illustrate our point, but you're the illustrator, so we'll leave that up to you.