Second Chances: Why Art is Better Than Real Life

Philip Koch, Down to the Bay, oil on canvas, 35 x 72", 2008

Above is a painting I started over a decade ago where I repainted the sky last year for a much better result. There is the old saying that "life is a work in progress." What isn't?

I've been going through a fascinating period this fall with my work as a basement flood forced me to literally handle most of the paintings stored down there. As you're trying to gently carry them up the steps to safety you can't help but do a little re-examining . As a result, I have a whole number of paintings I've decided to make little adjustments to.

Is there anyone who hasn't mulled over in their mind something that went wrong in their life, maybe a decision that proved a mistake or something said in anger you've regretted. Once the cat is out of the bag there's often little you can do.

If you're an artist, you get issued a special white armband by The Muse to go back and get it right the second time. More than most painters, I'm a habitual tinkerer. If I lay eyes on a painting of mine I haven't seen for some time, about half the time I get an idea of how I'd like to change it. If I still own the painting, I usually do. It is a little risky, but the odds are good. For every repainting I attempt that turns out poorly there are another 20 that push the painting up to a higher plateau.

Like real life, a painting is a multi-layered proposition. If it is any good at all it has so much going on in it one cannot possibly see it all at one time, at least not in any conscious way. Rather one apprehends just part of the picture. We need to get away from it to let ourselves forget our preconceptions. Sleep on it, perhaps for a long time, and should you get a new, better idea go ahead and try it out on the painting.

Until someone invents a functioning time machine, we can't do this with real life problems. But at least knowing you can go back in time with art and get it right gives us some hope. I like to think going back into old paintings and strengthening them makes me smarter. I have a suspicion it can subtly guide me in making better choices in real time with my life.


  1. Hmmm, I hope you took a photo of it first. Wouldn't it be funny if years latter you change it back to the original? John Rogers Cox changed "White Cloud" (now at the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, In) even after he no longer owned it. I figure that is what many artists are doing when they work in series. That is to say, they (we) are working through a theme until they are satisfied.


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