Mona Lisa’s Lips

What’s the affirmation for today?

The knowledge that I seek is within myself awaiting my question.

It took Leonardo Da Vinci 12 years to paint Mona Lisa’s lips. That’s what I learned from my iGoogle fact for the day. Evidently he couldn’t get them right. I’m thinking it went something like this:

Leo shows the unfinished painting to his cousin. His cousin says it’s great! Leo should finish it as quick as possible and sell it! Maybe it’ll make him famous!!

An exuberant Leo shares the conversation with a fellow artist and shows him the painting. Fellow artist says, “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it will never sell. Not unless you change her lips. An enigmatic smile? The public doesn’t want to look at that. And the lips are the focal point; if you don’t get them right, you might as well hang up your brushes.”

Leo is affronted. The lips look great, and anyway, this is the painting of his heart. He doesn’t care if anyone else likes those lips. He’s painting it for himself. Everyone else can go to hell.

A few weeks later Leo is still thinking about those lips. It would be nice to sell the painting. He needs the money, and maybe it will lead to other painting jobs. His cousin hadn’t mentioned anything wrong with the lips, and if he’d thought something was wrong, he surely would have said something, right? Hmmm. He asks his cousin about the lips specifically and is told the lips are great. Perfect. Nothing wrong with them. But it bothers Leo that his cousin can’t remember exactly what they look like. Was she laughing, his cousin asks Leo. Leo decides family members may not be the best to ask opinions of and takes the painting around for comments.

Fellow artist / agent / broker (FAAB)#2: “The lips? Yeah, there’s definitely something wrong with them. They’re too full. Full lips used to be in but they’ve been done to death. People are sick of full lips. You need to thin them out.”

Leo doesn’t want to, but if full lips had been done to death…. He thins them out–a little.

FAAB#3: “The lips aren’t full enough.”

Leo tells FAAB#3 that he thinned them out based on comments. FAAB#3 says, “Who told you that? Full lips are still selling. Full lips will always sell; they’re a mainstay of portraits. But they have to have something unique. Extra spit on the bottom lip or one of the corners turned down in a sneer. You know, something that instantly grabs the attention.”

Leo can’t bear the thought of making her sneer, but he did like the full lips, so he changes them back. Then he adds some spit–er, glow–to her bottom lip.

FAAB#4: “What’s that on her lip? Is that a sore? No one’s gonna buy a painting of a woman with a sore on her lip, especially if she’s smirking about it.”

Smirking? She looks like she’s smirking? Leo tries to ignore that comment. He’s got enough to think about with the sore–glow. He decides he must have done a crappy job with the glow if FAAB#4 thinks it looks like a sore. He works on it another year, all the while worrying about that smirk.

FAAB#5: “I love it!! Unfortunately, I just brokered two paintings that were exactly like this–you know, enigmatic smile, a touch of glow on the lips. I’ve got to have something different now.”

Leo kicks himself for taking so long to get the glow right. Now he’s missed the boat–the one carrying all the other artists.

FAAB#6: “You’ve obviously spent a lot of time on this painting and you’ve done a good job, but it just isn’t unique enough. It’s like every other painting that’s selling right now. Can you change her dress to red? And while you’re at it, maybe you should do something about those eyes. Squinting is always good. Goes great with red.”

Red? Squinting? Leo’s not changing her that much, even if it means not selling. But if all these other ones that are selling are just like his, why can’t they sell his too? He’s more than willing to change the lips since they’re the focal point and if he doesn’t get them right, no one will give it a second look. But he’s not changing anything else. Nothing else needs to be changed. Squinting? Really? No. Hmmm. Maybe he’s got the whole look wrong. Maybe he should ask other people.

FAAB#7: “What’s with that weird smile? It’s way too subtle. People want to know what she’s thinking about. If you’re gonna have her smile, then have her SMILE. What you’ve got there isn’t a smile.”

Leo explains that he wants people to wonder what’s behind the smile. It’s part of the mystique. FAAB#7 snorts in disgust and walks off, leaving Leo to ponder whether or not he should just paint a big toothless grin on her face and be done with it.

Leo keeps working on the painting but he doesn’t know what to do with the lips, so he just goes over the rest of the painting, strengthening the composition, perfecting his style. He decides he’d better start keeping a list of the changes so he doesn’t do the same ones over. Full lips with enigmatic smile–no spit. Slightly thinner lips. Full lips again with enigmatic smile and spit. Full lips with enigmatic smile and more natural looking spit. Full lips with enigmatic smile and more natural looking spit but with a red dress and squinting eyes. No!! Scratch that one.

FAAB#8: “You’re very talented and I’ve no doubt you’ll sell soon. But the rest of the painting doesn’t seem to flow with the lips. Maybe the style isn’t quite the same? Maybe you’ve worked the lips too much?”

Leo wants to scream. Hell yes, he’s worked the lips! But what does the FAAB means by “too much”? How can it be too much if they’re still not right? Maybe he just needs to start completely over with the lips because his style changed while he was finishing the rest of the portrait. Maybe fixing isn’t the answer. Maybe he needs to recreate from scratch.

Leo recreates the painting of his heart from scratch. Hey, wait a minute. Those lips look just like the first lips. Dang it! Now what? He’s spent 12 years on those lips, only to end up back where he started from.

He looks at Mona Lisa. She appears to be smirking at him. Where the hell is that red paint?

(Yes, I’m sure it went something like that.)


  1. Actually, it took 4 years for the whole painting, its a myth that it took 12 years for the lips.

  2. My art history book says Da Vinci began the painting in 1503 and worked on it for four years but didn’t finish it. He went back to it many times, working on it again and again, the last time being shortly before his death in 1519. He never considered it finished. Apparently he was such a perfectionist that he could never let go, which is pretty much what I’m writing to in my essay, except I doubt that good old Leo let the opinions of others urge him on to dissatisfaction. He was so hard on himself that he didn’t need to listen to anyone else:-)

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