Phoetal – Mental Health in Art

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The Long Suffering Artist

It’s not essential to suffer for your art, but mental health issues do seem to be rife among artists. Whether it’s the mental illness that allows artists to see the world the way they do and create the art they create, or it’s the creation of art that changes the perspective, artists throughout history have been known not just for their creations, but for their quirks and neuroses. And I am no exception*.

Self Portrait - Vincent Van Gough

Mental Health and the Fetal Position

When I started drawing Phoetal I had a different title in mind altogether. Originally, I was planning on calling it Panic Attack, but as I drew, it came to mind that the fetal position is a comfort reaction to myriad mental illnesses, whether it’s depression, anxiety, binge eating disorder, panic attacks… to name but a few. So it felt pertinent to name it as straight up Phoetal. An archaic spelling of the word fetal. At the time, I didn’t realise that phoetus was no longer spelt with the “ph” or “o” but in some ways, I liked the fact that unlike the modern spelling, Phoetal was kind of stretching back in history to encompass all the mentally ill artists that went before, so I left it with the historical spelling.

My pencil drawings tend to err on the erotic art side of the spectrum and, while my the subject in Phoetal is naked, the overall feel of the piece is vulnerability over eroticism. She is curled into a tight ball. The fact that she is incredibly thin adds a certain fragility. Her hair is damp, as if she was about to get out of the emptying bath, but the mental journey was too much to bear.

I wanted to create a similar vulnerable feel to my pencil drawing, Nap Time, which is of a woman sleeping half naked.

Nap Time

There’s a similarity in the pose, although in Nap Time, my subject is less tightly wound and the angle creates a more erotic feel to the piece. Unlike the inviting comfort of Nap Time, Phoetal is closed off – the position a shell to protect the frangible human inside.

Similarly, with After the Fight, my intention was to create a feeling of vulnerability and that sense of relatability. But unlike Phoetal, After the Fight covers a more wide-spread condition – we’ve all had those arguments that leave you feeling stripped and drained, whether it’s with a family member, a friend, a colleague or a partner. There was something about the way that the subject in After the fight is posed and dressed that suggests a breakup and what more relatable feeling is there than heartbreak?

After the Fight

In both of these cases, I used graphite pencil to really get those dark shadows and contrasting highlights to stand out. I felt that they needed to be without colour to really emphasise the dark aspect of the pieces.

After the stresses of a pandemic and the inevitable recession that follows, it would make sense if cases of mental health are on the rise, and it’s something that, particularly us Brits, are not good at dealing with.

The Effects of Art on Mental Health

Maybe art will save the day. In these bleak, uncertain times, one thing I can say for sure is that art is how we feed our souls and if we all retrain (thanks for the ignorant advertising campaign, Rishi Sunak), who will bring colour and joy to the world? Art has a positive impact on mental health – creating art can be a calming experience**, but having a space full of art can increase serotonin. Engaging with a piece of art can reduce levels of anxiety and depression. It can increase self-esteem. And it can encourage and stimulate imagination.

With the world working from home a lot more than previously, now is the time to make sure your space is full of art. Art that gets you thinking, or empowers you in your workspace. Art that makes you feel calm and soothed in your living spaces. Art that gets the juices flowing in the bedroom. And why not pick up a paintbrush and give it a go yourself?


* There’s a nice combination of depression and anxiety with related symptoms such as binge eating disorder, trichotillomania, erythrophobia and chest pains.

** Perhaps not for professional artists, but for hobbyists, for sure.

Purchasing and Prints

The original fetal art pencil drawing, Phoetal, is available in my shop and you can also get your mitts on prints, merchandise and downloads. Saatchi is your best bet for luxury canvas and framed prints, whereas Redbubble absolutely nail merchandise like clothing, stationery and home decor, as well as more budget prints and greetings cards. You can also download hi-res, print ready versions of this piece from the shop and make your own prints in as many formats as you like.

The original painting is available on the website.

It’s also available in all kinds of printing formats and across all clothing and home decor products on Redbubble.

Luxury framed or canvas prints are available from Saatchi.