Spotlight: Artist Brandon Finnorn

A Mobile native talks deep sea fishing, artistic inspiration and the decision to go from prescription pad to paint palette.

Art by Brandon Finnorn

Looking through Brandon Finnorn’s illustrations, you’d probably assume he studied fine art and spends most of his free time fishing. You’d be right about the fishing.

But Finnorn never received any formal arts education. In fact, he’s a doctor. 

After a terrifying battle with Lyme disease in 2016, just as he began his pediatric residency at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, Finnorn was placed on medical leave for several months. During that period, he made the decision to leave the medical profession and pursue art full time — a decision he says he hasn’t regretted once. 

“That time period was very difficult for me. I started reevaluating my goals, and with the time off, I realized I no longer had a passion for medicine,” he says. “At the same time, I started drawing fish to pass the time. It was my connection to home, and it was one of the few things that relieved the stress of being sick.”

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Finnorn’s illustrations began gaining popularity, and soon he was receiving commission requests. In 2018, Finnorn was commissioned to illustrate the 85th Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo print. He has since created work for several well-known retail lines sold at Bass Pro Shops and Dillard’s. 

Finnorn, a Mobile native and graduate of the University of South Alabama’s College of Medicine, lives in Louisiana with his wife, Bonnie, who works for Chevron as a petroleum engineer. He says his favorite place to fish is still Dauphin Island. 

MB put him on the hook, asking about fly fishing, making tough choices and a desire to keep learning.

Artist Brandon Finnorn

Your work makes it obvious you love the outdoors and art. Which passion came first, and what do you love about each of them? 

I have always loved learning, and both art and spending time outdoors offer plenty of opportunities for that.

My love for the outdoors and fishing along the Gulf Coast certainly came first. At age 2, my dad took me to the Dauphin Island Pier for the first time. We’ve always spent a ton of time as a family on the water. My family instilled in me an immense curiosity about the outdoors and environment of coastal Alabama, and I’ve spent my entire life learning about everything from species of coastal birds to habitats of speckled trout. My love for the outdoors is about more than fishing — it’s not uncommon for me to leave my rod and reel at home and walk the beach or Audubon Bird Sanctuary with my camera.

The same is true with my work. When I first started, I made sure to find as much material as I could to help hone my technique. I have never stopped learning. I probably spend an hour a day learning about something related to my business because it’s what I love to do, and I want to continue to improve. 

Can you share your most memorable fishing experience? What’s the most interesting fish you’ve caught, and what’s still on your fishing bucket list? 

My most memorable fishing experience is catching our first tripletail out of my family’s old 1979 Chaparral. My dad was the one who caught the fish, but I can claim the credit for spotting it as we sped by a crab buoy in Mobile Bay. I remember the excitement we felt finally getting it in the boat. We didn’t have the fanciest boat or the most expensive gear, so it was really rewarding to catch fish that were sought-after.  

A Lake Erie steelhead is the most interesting fish I’ve ever landed. When we lived in Pittsburgh, I had to learn a whole new fishery. Fishing with the fall colors in full bloom and trying to learn the technique behind tricking a big salmon-size fish into eating a fly was incredibly challenging and rewarding.

As far as a bucket list fish, tarpon is at the top of my list. I would love to catch one on the fly someday.

Tell us how you thought of the name for your Etsy shop. 

I named my Etsy shop “The Bonnie Fly” after my wife. Without her support through my Lyme disease and the lowest points during medical leave, I don’t know how I would have made it. There were periods where neither of us were sure my memory and health would return to normal. She was amazing. 

Changing my mind from being set on becoming a pediatrician to wanting to completely leave the medical profession was huge for us as a couple. She showed unwavering support for me through that time, and I feel very lucky to have her at my side.

This illustration of a bonefish was created as part of Finnorn’s “Moments of Tension” series. “This was my first attempt at painting a bonefish, and I wanted to show off its legendary speed in the shallow water,” he says.

Describe how you create a piece of art. Where do you find inspiration and ideas, and what materials and processes do you use? 

My work is largely influenced by my experience fishing the Gulf Coast and fly-fishing Pennsylvania. I usually try to think of perspectives that are impossible to catch on camera — moments of excitement and tension that I want to convey and relate to the viewer. I am always actively thinking of how to recreate experiences I’ve had on the water and how I wished I could have seen them. I usually just start sketching directly on my Wacom digital tablet, developing thumbnails of the composition I’m trying to accomplish. I can always undo, warp and change the perspective in Photoshop, so I get the opportunity to make each piece exactly as I wanted. As I’ve delved further into photography, my understanding of light and composition have also heavily influenced the development of my work. All of my pelican and lighthouse pieces come directly from my own photographs taken from the boat or walking the beach.

What is a digital illustration, and what kind of work do you do? 

Digital illustration can range from logo design to Photoshop painting and can be used for a variety of applications. I work as a graphic artist to create graphics for commercial apparel brands and outdoor companies, as well as a fine artist creating charcoal and pastel works, focusing on the fishing and the outdoors. I have been fortunate enough to design for brands like Louisiana Sportsman and the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, as well as many of the local captains in the Mobile Bay area.

What’s the most popular piece in your Etsy shop? What’s your personal favorite? 

My most popular piece is a redfish digital painting I created a little over a year ago. It depicts a redfish tailing in marsh grass, just before a fly hits the water. I painted it from memory, and it represents all the time I have spent in the marsh around Bayou La Batre hunting redfish with a fly rod.

My personal favorite piece is more recent, a 24-by-36-inch brown pelican. I recently began creating more large-format charcoals. This pelican was my first large piece and was drawn using a photo taken at the end of the Fairhope Pier in March of 2019. It combines photography with my favorite medium, charcoal.

Part of the same series, this digitally painted piece depicts “the critical first few moments when a brown trout takes a dry fly, much like I experienced in Pennsylvania streams.”

Tell us why you still include “MD” in your title, even though you don’t plan to practice medicine? 

Many of the skills and life lessons I learned as a physician-in-training are extremely applicable to running my business and improving as an artist. My training in a professional environment continues to be used through the way I handle following up with clients and listening to their needs. I think that training also helped me gain a lot of confidence in myself and my ability to adapt and learn skills in depth. I’m not sure that I would have had the confidence to share my work and display it for others without the prior experience of being a confident caretaker of patients. 

Have you received any formal artistic training, or is this just a natural gift you’ve honed over the years? 

I have never had artistic training, outside of an advanced prep class I took my senior year at McGill-Toolen. I have always sketched photos of my favorite football players and fish, but up until 2016, it was only in the margins of textbooks and notepads during class. Most of my current knowledge comes from reading, watching online classes and learning from traditional and digital artists I admire. I have learned a great deal from random YouTube videos and classes by other artists, like former Disney artist Aaron Blaise who helped create “The Lion King” and directed the movie “Brother Bear.” He now teaches online classes in fine art and digital illustration. I have found that applying skills learned from these various sources relates back to my days as a medical student, where I had to apply classroom studies to clinical practice.

Find Brandon’s work online at FinnornIllustrations.com or at Island Fire Glass Art Gallery on Dauphin Island Parkway. 

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