Anyone who thinks 3-year-olds and face painting don’t mix has never seen Maria Perez at work. Under her speedy hands, even the wriggliest kid can emerge with an intricate new disguise. That’s the magic of Perez, a face painter and Santa Barbara preschool teacher of more than 20 years. “I think just knowing where kids are [emotionally] gives me a soothing touch for [those] who feel a little overwhelmed,” she said.
Perez has no formal art training; it was actually preschool teaching that introduced Perez to face painting. “We had [an] event at my preschool, and I offered to do the face painting,” she said. “The excitement kids get … it was a magic thing. I did not expect it.” Hooked, she started packing a makeup bag and heading to Oak Park, where she practiced on willing passersby for free.
Today, Perez has a unique style, with complex, detailed freehand designs, ombré effects, and swooping, fluid lines. She refuses to use templates, lookbooks, or stencils and tries never to do precisely the same design twice. “It helps me grow, not bringing a template, not bringing a picture,” she said. “Kids deserve something exciting after waiting in line for 20 minutes.” And that’s another thing: She works quickly, often painting 15-20 kids during a one-hour booking.
For shy or sensitive kids, she’ll often walk them through the process, showing them her brushes and sponges, and letting them try out a clean brush first. “Some kids are very sensitive to people touching them, or some kids are very squiggly,” she said. “So I’ll say, you know what, let’s try this on your arm.’” It works, according to Erika Ronchietto, director of The Learningden Preschool on Hollister, who’s been hiring Perez for the past 10 years. “She’s more than just a face painter; she’s someone who kids develop a relationship with,” said Ronchietto. “She has her own little community.”
Perez, who moved to the area from Michoacán, Mexico, prides herself on having a number of clients in her own community. “I love the face painting that I do, and I want people from different economic levels to be able to have that for their kids,” she said. Perez works on a sliding scale, trying to be accessible to as many superhero and princess hopefuls as possible.