A few times over the years, usually at San Diego Comic-Con, I have had a parent or two accompany a child, perhaps in middle-school or so, to my table. Sometimes the child knows who I am, sometimes not--Comic-Con is notorious for being populated by people with sketchbooks who will wander the floor looking for artist types who they will ask to sign or draw in their books simply because they look artsy. (Note: I do not look artsy)
In this scenario, whether they know me or not is not important. The parents will then proceed to scope out my work, their eyes moving across my table of prints, some small originals, drawings and the like, to behind me where I might have a larger work or two on an easel. Then one will say to me that their child likes to draw and ask would I mind looking at their work. Naturally I'm happy to, so the child will sheepishly (or with parental goading) pass me a sketchbook or binder or whatever. I'll have a flip-through, trying to think of what this budding artist might need to hear at this time. While doing so, the parent will then casually ask me the real question:
"So, can you really make a living doing this?"
Suddenly the whole scenario takes on a different tone. No longer am I looking at a youngster's work thinking how I might encourage them or point them in a better direction simply to improve their work. This parent has come to some independent assessment that their child is perhaps getting unusually good, or obsessively interested in art, and is struggling with conflicting desires they have regarding validation and stability. Suddenly the scenario has become such that the parent is looking for evidence that their child has a chance at a stable future, if they pursue art. Or, perhaps they are looking for the proof they need that they should cease encouraging these artistic pursuits, and should instead enroll them in more college prep X courses or whatever. No longer do I hold the innocent art of a kid's free time in my hand. Now I hold their future.
It's a rather awkward situation to be in, but I understand. How should I answer? It's not for me to say it doesn't matter, that the child should do what they love--my values have no sway or influence there, and I'm not sure that's my answer anyway. At the same time, I don't want to crush the aspirations of a young artist. I myself, by Jr. High, was already contemplating a career in the arts, after all--inchoate as the path forward was.
Chief in this is now going to be my estimation of the youth's work. Perhaps I give a confident answer to their first question, that making a living at illustration is a reasonable expectation. However, their particular child may not yet show signs that they would be able to attain it.
I've taken to answering in the following way, and this answer holds true for anyone looking to enter this field, regardless of how old (at least in this genre, though many illustrator friends in other genres might agree): "Yes, it is possible, but very difficult." I can't lie to them--it is likely that their child would earn a better living doing almost anything else. And I really mean that. I know illustrators who earn comfortable livings through their art--these tend to be artists at the top of their game, however. Ones you all know by name already. But they are not the majority, or even a sizable minority. I usually go on to say a second true thing: "I've been at this now for (15+ or whatever) years. Some years I have done alright, other years have been very difficult. Overall, if I didn't have a supportive wife with a regular paycheck most years, I couldn't have maintained a freelance career this long." They've scoped out my work and have judged it at this point. I leave it to them to consider whether that's surprising or not.
Life as a freelance illustrator, compared to everyone else
From there I'll move forward with my thoughts for their kid. Here I'll speak to their child directly. My advice will always be to encourage them in what they are doing right, to give them 1-2 very specific things they should do, or projects to try, and warn them away from a bad habit or two.
The parents are usually appreciative of my advice and candor, and go on their way. I then sit back and wonder what I might've just done. Will this child be allowed to continue pursuing art? Will they naturally move on to other interests anyway? Have I foreclosed on the possibilities for this kid? Have I introduced a rift that'll plague their relationship forevermore, as a growing-in-seriousness artist is not supported by parents who have their best interests at heart? Will this person be made to pursue another field, only to regret it years later, retrain and try to reclaim their passion after years of therapy and a marriage ruined by unhappiness from their other career? Ok, perhaps some of this is a little overblown. Perhaps.
Or, is it possible that they'll be steered away from illustration as a career, live a happy life doing something else for which they will be paid comfortably, and that I might have just saved them from years of personal and financial difficulty? Perhaps I'll never know. Perhaps one day one of them will approach me again and let me know.
It's odd how a 5-minute conversation has the chance for becoming the turning point in a person's life. I'm guessing/hoping those parents will ask the same question of other artists. I know some folks will want to put the best face forward for the industry, or perhaps avoid admitting their own financial situation and feeling judged as a result. I can only hope that my counsel is weighed against others'.