Thursday, April 7, 2011


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 become.

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.

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