Are you tired of seeing the same old scary faces on every Jack O’ Lantern you see? Are you obsessed with carving and looking for a way to bring your passion from “craft” to “work of art”? Or do you just have a few hours on your hands to try something totally different? Forget the triangle eyes and pointy, crooked teeth – a Jack O’ Lantern can be so much more than a face, and is not always black and white!
Beginning carvers 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. If we peel away the pumpkin’s skin, but do not cut all the way through the flesh, we are given the option of a yellowish white – the exposed flesh of the pumpkin. And if we’re really determined, we can scrape away only part of the orange, leaving a lighter orange which can be used for shadowing.
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 make a statement!
Pick and Prepare Your Pumpkin
Think about what kind of design you want to do, and how intricate it is. Use your best judgment to select the pumpkin size that’s best for you. Then try to find the smoothest pumpkin possible. Most pumpkins have ridges running from top to bottom, and that’s okay. But try to find one with the least amount of scratches and scars. At the very least, find one with one perfect side to carve on, even if the rest is a bit damaged. If you want a pumpkin without those vertical ridges, go for a bigger one, as they tend to smooth out as they fatten up. Once you’ve found your perfect pumpkin, it’s time to prepare it for carving.
Even if you only plan to carve on the surface of your pumpkin, 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, cut a circular hole around the stem and pop the top off. Scoop out all the seeds and save for roasting (yummy!). Scrape the insides to get rid of as much pumpkin goo as possible (bugs and bacteria love this stuff).
Pick and Prepare Your Picture
You can put pretty much anything on your pumpkin. One of my favorite things to carve is iconic images from classic horror movies. This time I chose a picture of Lon Chaney from the lost silent film, London After Midnight. A famous image, I think it would look perfect on my pumpkin.
When choosing your image, pick something that’s easily recognizable. If it’s a photo with a background, it’s probably best to omit it, and just focus on the characters or main figures 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 gray scale. All photo editing programs can do this. Once your pic is in black and white, it’s wise to turn up the contrast. This will make the blacks blacker and the whites whiter. It 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 it 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 stabbing 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 the outcome is worth it. Take a break once in a while to munch some pumpkin seeds or candy corn. Keep your paper as still as possible to avoid warping your 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 what parts of the pumpkin represent white, black and gray. Once you decide, stick with it unless you absolutely have to change. 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 his hat, hair and coat would be represented by the solid orange of the pumpkin skin. That means that the black lines of his face should also be solid orange. I chose never to carve all the way through my pumpkin, but instead to use the white meat of the pumpkin for the color of his 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 better idea for your project. You may find a 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.
Pare and Peel Your Pumpkin’s Pelt
It is finally time to carve your pumpkin! After all this preparation you must be dying to get started, right? But first – Safety Tips!
- Children should not do this without adult supervision.
- Cut away from yourself, not toward. If you need the blade at a different angle, just rotate the pumpkin!
- Always just BE CAREFUL!
Whew, now that that’s out of the way…
I started from the outside 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. It also just looks cool.
Then I moved in for the details. And you thought the perforating thing was hard work! This will probably actually feel more like whittling than carving. Have fun!
The main tip I can give you about doing the details is to 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 it. That’s how I lost the right side of Lon Chaey’s lower lip.
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.
As I went, I found places where I wanted to leave a shadow. So before cutting all the skin away, I lightly scraped only the top off in these places. The main places I did this were along the length of his nose and on his jaw near his mouth. I thought 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 is mine. Nothing can ever be perfect. But you did something that’s totally you, and it’s sure to turn a few heads.
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!