Seeing the Mona Lisa

There are certain pieces of artwork that have become so common in our civilization that we know them almost as well as we know our reflection in the mirror. We see them so much, so often, that, in truth, we don’t actually see them at all.

The Mona Lisa is the perfect example. We all know the portrait of the brunette woman with the mysterious half-smile.

And we all know at least something about the painting. We know it was painted by the famous Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci. We know it’s housed in the Louvre in France. Most of us probably know it was once stolen, and we know there are all kinds of questions and debates surrounding the image.

You don’t have to be an art historian or have read The Da Vinci Code to be at least vaguely familiar with some of the controversies: Who is the woman in the painting? Is she a noblewoman? A whore? Is the painting perhaps even a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci himself, in drag?

We’ve heard all the arguments and the theories on what the painting symbolizes, why it was painted the way it was, how Leonardo broke new artistic ground with his techniques.

When it comes to the Mona Lisa, our popular culture is flooded with these big-picture concepts to such an extent that we seem to have lost sight of the details.

Like this one that struck me the very first time I saw the painting when I was a small child (a question nobody’s ever been able to answer to my satisfaction):

Why doesn’t the Mona Lisa have any eyebrows?

Seriously. Look at the picture (included above for your convenience). I’ll wait.

You with me now? She has no eyebrows—not even a hint of a shadow that we might construe as the suggestion of an eyebrow.

Okay, sure, but what’s the point? you might ask.

Well, it’s just this: You need both sides of the equation—the big-picture concepts AND the nitty-gritty details (like eyebrows)—if you want to be a great writer.

Maybe graphic artists like Leonardo can skip the obvious and still create a product people will appreciate and enjoy, but good writing needs to maintain consistency in the little details while simultaneously expressing broad concepts in a way that makes people say, “Hey, I know what this writer means!”

Unlike Leonardo, writers can’t get away with forgetting the eyebrows and still be considered at the top of their game. So, that’s my advice: Don’t forget the eyebrows.

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