Finn McAvinchey – Freelance Concept Artist

Findara McAvinchey is a freelance concept artist from Galway. Having studied initially in Galway Institute of Technology back in 2012 Finn decided to apply to study in England for his degree in Game Art Design. After Finn graduated he came back to Galway to work in the fledgling game industry here. He is currently doing freelance work and concentrating on up skilling to ensure high employability in the future. I wanted to chat to him about his journey from college in Galway to University in the UK and into the career he has chosen, along with his experience of the opportunities this type of art production offers locally, nationally and internationally.

Gianna Tasha: Hi Finn, I just want to begin by asking you for an outline of the type of work a concept artist produces. I am more familiar with the fine art world so I am really interested in the whole idea of concept art and the process involved in the development of such work.

Finn McAVinchey: Hi Gianna. First of thank you so much for interviewing me!

Concept Art is a form of illustration used to convey ideas and designs of a particular subject matter that does not exist yet. These ideas are used in films, video games, animation, comic books or other media before they are put into the final product. Concept art is also referred to as visual development and/or concept design. Working closely with an art director, a concept artist will iterate and explore ideas through the design process until the director is satisfied with the final product.Depending on the project, a concept artist will be asked to design environments, characters, creatures, vehicles, weapons, props amongst many other things.

Also, depending on the artist, later he or she generally chooses an area to specialize in or branch into. I for example prefer environment design and landscapes.I’ve always felt that I’ve had an intuitive feel for landscape. As a kid, I would love wandering through forests and exploring on beaches. Now I have an area where I can take what I love about nature and stretch its possibilities through the concept art or illustration process. Later on in my career I might focus on characters but for now, improving my knowledge of environment design feels right for me.

A lot of the time though people see concept art in games as this romantic thing where you draw and paint up pretty pictures all day. But the reality is, eighty percent of the time it’s actually about churning out as many bad ideas as fast as possible through really rough exploration. The other twenty percent involves the better ideas and more polished pieces, pieces that you would see in a concept artist’s portfolio. You have to develop a thick skin because when you’re working most of the art you submit is going to be turned down until you get what the client wants.

Most people see this cool aspect of concept art which is the finished illustrations or the fact that you’re working on a game or a movie but what people don’t see and don’t realise is all those times that you sit around being pissed off that you can’t nail down that idea or you can’t get that tree or rock to work in your composition!

It’s fun though because when it really clicks, you just get lost and totally absorbed in the project or world you’re helping to develop.

Gianna Tasha: I first met you when we were both doing the portfolio course in GTI. You seemed very focused back then though you have mentioned to me previously you were not entirely sure which direction your artwork was going to take back then. Ultimately you left Galway to study, can you tell me a bit about the path you chose after you left GTI? Why you chose the particular degree and how your time was at the university you decided upon.

Finn McAvinchey: Yeah that was an interesting year! The year before attending GTI I was actually in NUIG. I discovered concept art through playing a game called Castlevania Lords of Shadow. In it, it showcased some of the art that was involved in making the game, something that no other game had shown me before. I was astounded that it was someone’s job to create these images for games. I just had to do it,  no matter what it took. I left NUIG and proceeded to attend GTI the next year.

The images I had seen appealed to all of my interests and reminded me of images I would conjure up in my head while playing as a child. Things like epic fantasy adventures, trekking through forests filled with ancient ruins and fighting all kinds of monsters and creatures.

At the time I didn’t know what that form of illustration was called or how I could start doing it. Most of my time in GTI was spent trying to figure out what I had to do in order to make a career out of it. I originally thought all the images that I had seen in that game and the other art I had seen online were all done traditionally! Later I realized most of it was done in Photoshop but a knowledge of drawing and painting was essential.

Before I left GTI I had done some research on what courses would allow me to explore concept art as a field of study. As it turned out concept art is such a niche role, so not many Universities offered it as a course of study. The few that did offer entertainment design as a course of study were in places like America and Singapore. They were also massively expensive. The course I ultimately ended up choosing was Game Art design at DeMontfort University in Leicester. It covered all areas of art in games including some concept art so I figured a knowledge of game art as a whole would be pretty beneficial in the long run.

DeMontfort was a great experience. I’m so grateful to Chris Wright for giving me the opportunity to attend the course as my portfolio really wasn’t up to entry standards but he could see how focused and determined I was that he decided to take a risk on me.

Gianna Tasha: It is always great to get a teacher who is inspiring and I think makes the difference for many young students who leave their home country by way of focusing and sticking in at the course. It is tough leaving home and starting completely over somewhere new!

Finn McAvinchey: My first year at university was a crazy experience. For the entire year I was so laser focused that I would have trouble sleeping at night because I was just so eager to learn. I also felt like I had so much to catch up on as I had started art seriously relatively late. It was fantastic for me because it felt like the first time in my life where I was able to learn the way I wanted to and could study an area I was really passionate about.

In second year I had a great tutor who really opened my eyes to what concept art really was. As a concept artist you can’t be precious about your work. Your job is to generate ideas and most of those ideas are going to be rejected. He trained my mind to accepting this reality as well as all the hard work that was involved in making a career as a concept artist. As a result I felt I learnt more in that year than I had in my entire life.

In third year I was able to focus on concept art as my desired area of expertise. My friend Karol and I created an art book together for our final major project and that was a very rewarding experience.

In hindsight though I’m not so sure university is as essential as it used to be as there are so many different ways to learn through online courses and free tutorials. The greatest benefit that I gained from University was the people I met. To be surrounded by so many others who were as interested in the things that I was made for a great learning environment. It was such a humbling experience to get to share and converse with other students who had such unique ideas and life experiences. As a result I’ve made some amazing friends as well as future industry contacts.

Gianna Tasha: Wow, it really sounds like University in the UK really helped you get totally focused and hone in on your career path. How have things been since you graduated and returned to Galway? You did an internship for a while on your return if I am correct, can you tell me a bit about that, and where you are now in regards to your art practice?

 Finn McAvinchey: Well after I graduated I actually took a short break from art. I was so burned out from the three years of intense study that I needed the break. For a short period all I did was go for walks with my camera, sketched, met friends and caught up on some games that I had been meaning to get round to playing.

I also really enjoyed returning to Galway. I think it’s a beautiful city and it has an amazing and vibrant culture about it.

I felt so refreshed and energized after the break that I quickly started looking for full-time work. A short time later, a company in Galway called Tribal City Interactive got in contact with me and asked if I would like to be an intern concept artist to work on their new Role Playing Game, Runes of Aran, a game based on Irish mythology.

I was tasked with concepting the environments, characters, props, storyboards and UI Design among other responsibilities.

It was exactly my kind of project and a rare position to be offered so I jumped at the opportunity. I was very surprised as I wasn’t aware of many games companies in Galway but as it turned out, there is a strong community of people all really passionate about making games. At the time I had only really thought of Dublin as the space where most game companies operated from but the game scene in Galway is growing fast, especially with the new Game Hub now open in GMIT.

I really enjoyed my time at Tribal City and am so thankful to Alan Duggan for giving me my entry into the games industry. Alan and his team are really working hard to produce a fantastic game. I learned so much and the guys at Tribal City and the folks from the studios involved in the Game Hub are a great bunch of people.

Gianna Tasha:  Ok, I just want you to talk me through one of your works. One of the works ‘Water Environment’ has a surreal painterly quality, I think it is really interesting how your landscapes and environments are stills in a bigger story, you can feel the images are coming from somewhere and going somewhere, a time lapse of a story in motion. Can you tell me a bit about the process of the work, how you begin, the thought process and then the technical process?

Finn McAvinchey: I do most of my work in Photoshop and use a tablet and pen to draw and paint using that software. I generally have he same process for most of my work. It starts with an idea or rough image in my head and then I begin gathering reference. For an illustration like the water environment I was fortunate enough to be able to use my local surroundings for inspiration. Most other times I rely on google for gathering reference and inspiration.

After that I will do some rough composition sketches and block in big shapes as well as sketching out elements that might appear in the image to seeing how they fit overall. I then narrow down my preferred compositions and choose around four to take to color. I then take my preference from those and take it to a final illustration.

There are of course pros and cons in working digitally. Working digitally allows you to work much faster and if you make a mistake, you can just erase it. The downside of course is the work is not a physical thing. It doesn’t have the tangibility of paint on canvas.

I really like painting vast and epic landscapes. What really inspired me the most was the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Lord of the Rings story was just one small part in a massive world (Middle Earth) and you are constantly reminded of that when you see how small and insignificant the characters appear at times on their quest. I really want to try and capture those moments of awe and scale in my work.

One of my favorite methods of studying and practice is breaking down the works of old master painters.  Visually studying and dissecting the work I can utilize that knowledge to use in my own work.

Albert Bierstadt is an example of an old master painter and has inspired me tremendously. He was an American painter best known for his lavish, sweeping landscapes of the American West. His knowledge of composition and the natural landscape allowed him to create these paintings which draw you in and almost put you inside the frame. As a result you feel dwarfed by the sheer scale of his subject matter. What amazes me the most though is that all his work is traditional and done on a very large scale!

Gianna Tasha: Yes, perhaps it was this influence I might have picked up on in some of your conceptual landscapes! So what are you doing now do you still work in Tribal City? It sounds like a great start in the industry and pretty lucky in that it was in your home town!

Finn McAvinchey: Yeah I was so lucky to have that experience especially in Galway. I have since left Tribal City and have spent my time freelancing for various companies and working on upgrading my skills through some online courses. Upon completion of my next online course I will be looking to return to in-house work at a studio. As much as I would like to stay in Ireland the opportunities for full-time work aren’t there right now so I imagine I will be relocating abroad some time in the near future.

Gianna Tasha: So you think you might then return to Galway  and start up on your own? Galway has a good record with supporting startups and I think it would be a real loss to see creatives such as yourself leave for good!

Finn MCAvinchey: I love Galway and as I said I think it is a really special place. Going forward I really like the idea of returning to school to study classical drawing and painting or possibly travelling and freelancing at the same time. Also creating a start up inevitably means less time making art and more time running a business. I think right now it’s too early for me to say.

The idea of teaching does appeal to me though so maybe in the future I might return to Galway and set up my own thing although I don’t know what that might be. Right now the most important thing for me is to keep getting better and to keep learning new things.

 Gianna Tasha: Well I wish you all the very best in the future, thanks a million Finn its been great chatting to you and learning about your genre of art.

Finn McAvinchey: It was a pleasure Gianna! Thanks.

More of Finns work can be found here