Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Creating a Masterpiece.

I was reading in an art book about how Leonardo da Vinci created
his masterpiece, the Mona Lisa. First he created a detailed underpainting in
a neutral grey, and then applied his colours in transparent glazes on top.
Sometimes the underpainting would show through the layers, helping to create
form. He muted his palette in a narrow tonal range to give a sense of unity
to the painting. He softened the facial features and made his shadows darker
and more monochromatic as they grew further from the focal point.

His technique of softening colours and edges with dark glazes is
called sfumato, from the Italian fumo, meaning smoke. It's as if all the
edges have been obscured by a haze of transparent shadows, or smoke.

It struck me that writing a mystery follows this pattern. First we lay down
the central storyline and plot. Then we add in the details and colour.
Sometimes you can see the understory. Other times it's obscured by vibrant
bits of detail. If we keep the story within a tonal range, it has unity. The
further we are from the core of the story, the more vague the details

They always said mystery was all smoke and mirrors. Maybe it's sfumato.

Are you on your way to creating a masterpiece?

Vicki Cameron is the author of Clue Mysteries and More Clue Mysteries, each
15 short stories based on the board game Clue. Her young adult novel,
Shillings, appeared in 2007. Her stories appear in the Ladies' Killing
Circle anthology series and Storyteller Magazine. Her young adult novel,
That Kind of Money, was nominated for an Edgar and an Arthur Ellis.


  1. Beautiful image, Vicki. I think that's a very good metaphor for writers trying to make their story more emotionally powerful and focussed. Those of us who write without knowing the underlying storyline until it's over, can use it in rewrites.

  2. This blog plus Barbara's comment are very useful to me at this point in my rewrite -- thanks!

  3. Interesting idea about the events and scenes that go on in the periphery of the reader's vision. That's one of the tricks of a good mystery story isn't it?

  4. A lovely comparison, Vicki, particularly for those of us who have turned our hands to the visual arts in former lives. Thank you!