By Lily Kane
Given the level of sophisticated detailing, discipline, and composure conveyed in Luisi Mera’s charcoal portraits and paintings, it comes as little surprise to learn that she was trained from childhood to be a classical ballerina. Her method of artmaking is similarly physical and meticulous—she draws for 10 or more hours a day, from a crouched position over the paper, with a pillow set atop glassine under her knees. As in ballet, it is not enough to just know the steps—though Mera does, executing her drawings and paintings with extraordinary control—there is also the expectation that the work will be imbued with warmth and an accessible humanness or vulnerability. Mera’s photorealistic portraits manifest this by reveling in every fold and wrinkle a face can produce, the sparkle or sadness in someone’s eyes, or the way their hand rests on a bed.
In fact, Mera coaxes her subjects’ likenesses out of layers of charcoal on paper so masterfully that you may find yourself checking and rechecking the materials listed on the label or in the caption. Confirmed: charcoal on paper. Mera is passionately carrying forward this classical artistic tradition to the delight of leading private collectors, such as Alexandra and Steven Cohen, and her more than 47,000 Instagram followers.
Portrait making is, of course, one of the earliest impulses in art. And our current day offers limitless possibility for portraiture, with state-of-the-art cameras, editing software, and a barrage of visual effects in nearly everyone’s pocket. Mera’s work stands out by being the antithesis of this technological immediacy. Rather, it is built slowly in layers, like geological strata.
When Mera started at Watkins, she was working primarily in oil painting, though she was intrigued by the more pointed verisimilitude she found through drawing, noting, “it gave me control and I could draw very small details with graphite pencils.”
Her first exposure to working in charcoal was in Terry Thacker’s figure drawing class, where he encouraged her to push herself and “to try drawing more loosely,” she remembers, showing her charcoal sketches by Mike Glier as an example. While this wasn’t the direction for her, the process helped her identify and articulate her own style and medium.
“After critique I looked at my drawing and was not sure that was the aesthetic I wanted as an artist. I saw myself learning and experimenting without completely abandoning my ideals, which were to create very naturalistic drawings. I went to my studio and kept reworking that drawing; it became a refined detailed drawing at the end. After that I have been working primarily with charcoals.”
After graduating from Watkins, she went on to receive her MFA in Painting at the New York Academy of Art, as well as attending the Leipzig International Art Program in Germany and Cuttyhunk Island Residency in Massachusetts.
Mera’s process is profoundly influenced by anatomy and conscientious observation of how bodies move and rest. Armed with this foundational knowledge, she can work successfully from photographs. “I did not want my drawings to feel flat,” Mera says, “and I did not want to work from a grid or copy the photograph drawing area by area, having at the end a very detailed drawing that falls apart as a whole.”
Mera explains that her drawings gain their sense of dimensionality in layers. “I build the form from the inside out,” starting with what she describes as “a precise outline drawing.” This is followed by a second layer in which she begins “keying the values a little darker than they appear” to bring shape and form to the composition. She then blends and builds the edges through a process of erasure. Last, she says, “I refine everything, basically do a better drawing on top of the other layers, shaping and redesigning everything.”
Mera chooses as her point of inspiration to dip in around the 15th and 16th century and the early Northern Renaissance paintings of Jan Van Eyck, followed by Petrus Christus and Hans Holbein. Specifically, Mera says, she admires the ways in which “everything in the composition was treated equally with the same care—a window, the floor, the furniture was painted as beautifully as a hand.” She is also inspired by the contemporary works of Madrid realist Antonio López García and Vija Celmins—a clear corollary, though Mera largely draws the people who might float on a Celmins sea or hold her exquisitely rendered objects.
A native of Panama, Mera now lives in New York where she primarily spends her time drawing, painting, and immersing herself in museum collections as she continues to hone her craft. Earlier this year she gained access to the Metropolitan Museum of Art once a week for ten weeks to work on a copy of Guido Cagnacci’s The Death of Cleopatra, painted circa 1645-55.
Mera’s gift is her ability to portray her subjects in a way that feels both casually intimate and virtuosic. “I have been lucky to sell work portraying my family in very quotidian scenes,” she says, adding, “I made them without ever thinking of selling them.” Mera currently handles her own sales so most people see her work through social media. Her most immediate goal now is to find gallery representation and exhibit a comprehensive body of work.
As of now, she is balancing commissions and her personal practice, committing herself fully to her art and figuring out along the way where it will be seen next. From her studio, she laughs, “Most days I do not even see daylight.”