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Tired of seeing the same old carvings on every jack o’lantern you see? Are you obsessed with carving all things gourd and always looking for a way to bring your passion from “craft” to “work of art”?
Or perhaps you just a spare gourd, some cool tools, and a few extra hours on your hands.
This year, forget the triangle eyes and pointy, crooked teeth – a jack o’ lantern can be so much more. Here’s the scoop on how to carve up something spectacular this Halloween.
It’s Easier Than You May Think
Beginning carvers generally only see two options when it comes to carving a pumpkin. We can see the orange of the pumpkin’s skin, or we can see a candle through holes in the skin.
But we really do have more options than that. Peel away a pumpkin’s skin without cutting all the way through the flesh and get a buttery yellow, for example. Or if you’re really determined, scrape away only part of the orange, leaving a lighter orange that can be used for shadowing, and presto – you’ve got three cool colors from one great gourd.
With these new options we can start to create some really unique Jack O’ Lanterns. So if you’ve got the time and the inclination, pull up a pumpkin and come carve wtih us.
Step One: Pick the Perfect Pumpkin
In order to choose the right pumpkin, think about what kind of design you want to do and how intricate it will be. (HINT: Pumpkin stencil books can offer awesome selections.)
Your image choice can determine such things as the size of the pumpkin, the overall shape -for example, tall and somewhat flat on one side for a creepy hanging spider – and even whether or not it has a stem.
Now that you’ve narrowed down the size and shape, try to find a pumpkin that’s smooth on the side you’ll be carving on – a little scarring on areas that won’t show is totally fine.
Most pumpkins have ridges running from top to bottom, and that’s okay. But do try to find one with the least amount of scratches and scars. This will give you the best, easiest surface to carve no matter what your finished design will be.
If you want a pumpkin with minimum, shallow vertical ridges, go for a bigger one, as these tend to smooth out as they grow.
Step Two: Prepping Steps
Once you’ve found your perfect pumpkin, it’s time to prepare it for carving.
NOTE: Even if you only plan to carve on the surface of your pumpkin (rather than cutting all the way through the skin), you should prepare it the same way you would a normal jack o’lantern, as this will help you protect it from rotting.
Using a pumpkin knife from a carving kit or a small, hand-held jigsaw (these are safest and cut most easily), cut a circular hole around the stem and pop the top off. You may want to leave a little “lip” or a slightly oblong shape so you can easily see how to set the top back down on the pumpkin once it’s carved.
Scoop out all the seeds and save for roasting (yummy!). Scrape the insides to get rid of as much pulp as possible; bugs and bacteria love this goo the most, so keep it to a minimum if you can.
Prepare Your Image
You can put pretty much anything on your pumpkin. One of my favorite things to carve is something iconic from a classic horror film. For this tutorial I chose a picture of Lon Chaney from the lost silent film, London After Midnight. .
When choosing your image, pick something that’s easily recognizable. If it’s a photo with a background, it’s probably best to omit the background and just focus on the characters or main subject so you don’t distract they eye with unnecessary detail.
It’s best to find a picture with a lot of contrast – extreme darks and extreme lights working together well. If your design is in color, you will have to change it to grayscale. All photo editing programs can do this, as can oldschool photocopying if you prefer.
Once your pic is in black and white in your editing program, it’s wise to turn up the contrast. This will make the blacks blacker and the whites whiter. This simple step will help simplify the image so you don’t have too much detail to worry about.
Print the Page and Puncture Your Pumpkin
Print your image out on a piece of paper. You may have to play with your settings to get it to the right size to fit your pumpkin.
Once you have the image printed, position it over the best side of your pumpkin and decide exactly where you want it to go.
Next, use a few pins, needles, or thumb tacks to stick the photo in place.
With another pin (I suggest push pins, as they are easiest to hold) trace every line of your photo by poking holes along the line into the pumpkin. Any line you want to make note of should be perforated this way. This may take a while, but you’ll see that the outcome is worth it.
Hand getting tired? Take a break once in a while to munch some pumpkin seeds or candy corn. Whatever you need to do to keep the momentum, don’t skip this important step; it will determine exactly how you carve your cool image.
When you’ve perforated the entire image, and while the lines are still fresh in your mind, remove the paper and connect the dots by slicing with a craft knife or box cutters. Keep the slices as straight as possible. They do not have to be too deep, but you do need to be able to use them as trustworthy guides.
Pick Your Pumpkin Pigments
You’re almost ready to carve, but first you need to decide which parts of the pumpkin represent white, black and gray. Once you decide, stick with your vision unless you absolutely have to change it. You might run into this problem when you get to two shapes next to each other that are similar in color, but need to be separate.
This is why it is wise to carve from the outside, toward the center. This will help you coordinate and will leave more possibilities to switch if you later find you need to.
I decided that for my picture, the black of Mr. Chaney’s hat, hair and coat would be represented by the solid orange of the pumpkin skin. That means that the black lines of his face must also be solid orange.
I chose not to carve all the way through my pumpkin, but instead to use the white “meat” of the pumpkin for the color of my creepy subject’s skin and the whites of his eyes and teeth. I also knew that for subtler shadows (gray) I could gently scrape only the very top of the orange skin away and leave a light orange.
You may choose to do it the way I did, or you may have a different vision for your project. Use your creativity to find neat way to incorporate the black of cutting all the way into the pumpkin flesh to the other side. Do whatever you think is best for your design – remember, you’re the artist!
Pare and Peel Your Pumpkin’s Pelt
It’s finally time to carve your pumpkin! After all this preparation you must be dying to get started, right? But first – safety tips! You’ll want to wind up with an awesome carving AND all 10 fingers.
- Children should not carve pumpkins without adult supervision, even if they’re using safety tools.
- Cut away from yourself, not toward. If you need the blade at a different angle, just rotate the pumpkin.
- Go SLOWLY. If you can’t seem to quite cut through, use SMALL sawing motions as you go along your lines. Don’t jab and yank at your blade. Trust us on this.
Now that that’s out of the way…
For this tutorial, I started from the outside of my image and worked inward. The first thing I did was make a little halo around the outside of my image in white. I did this by stripping away the orange flesh all the way around to distinguish the black hat, hair and coat from the rest of the pumpkin.
Then I moved in for the details. And you thought the perforating dealio was hard work! This will probably actually feel more like whittling than carving. Just relax, take your time and have fun!
TIP: When carving details, slice down at an angle toward the part you are cutting out. If there is a piece of skin you need to keep, always push the blade away from it, or you weaken it underneath and risk loosing the detail. That’s how I lost the right side of Lon Chaney’s lower lip, for reference.
The hardest part of my design was probably the teeth because they were so close together. It was hard to take pieces out without damaging the others. So as you can see, even we old pros (or so we like to think of ourselves!) have our challenges. Remember – go slowly!
As I continued with my design I found places where I wanted to leave a shadow. In these cases, before cutting all the skin away, I lightly scraped only the top. The main sections where I used this technique were along the length of Mr. Chaney’s nose and on his jaw, near his mouth. I felt this would give more depth and realism to his face, even though I did not follow the shadows in the picture exactly.
For a finishing touch, you can scoop out most of the flesh on the inside to make the wall very thin. Then put a candle inside and you’ll get a nice glow through the flesh. Just leave the top open so oxygen can get in.
When you are all done, sit back and admire your work. Looks pretty awesome, doesn’t it?
If it’s not perfect, don’t worry – neither was mine! Nothing can ever be perfect. But if you did something that’s totally you, it’s sure to turn a few heads – and we think you’re going to even impress yourself.
To help your pumpkin last longer, cover the inside and outside with vegetable oil or Vaseline (warning: flammable) and consider keeping it in the fridge until the big day.
Congratulations! You are an advanced pumpkin carver!