Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pumpkins of Halloweens Past

With a linoleum cutter set (found at any art supply store), an awl (even a long needle will do), an image to transfer, and a little bit of patience, almost any image can be carved into a pumpkin! Below are some of my tried-and-true tips for amazing pumpkins, but here are a few samples from years past...enjoy!
Pumpkins carved for a Harry Potter-themed Halloween party a couple of years ago

A pumpkin carved for a contest at my old job...this one earned second place, good enough for a large gift bag full of Martha Stewart goodies!

Pumpkins I carved for last year's 80's themed Halloween party.
Obviously Michael Jackson's Thriller was a huge inspiration for the pumpkins!

As promised, here are some of the things I've learned in the last few years to make the pumpkin-carving process less daunting: 
  • Prep your space. Always lay down plenty of newspaper to make clean-up easy.
  • Carve under good light. Natural light, or at least bright overhead lighting, will make carving intricate details much easier. 
  • Print out your carving image. Use your computer's photo-editing functionality to make the image negative or "inverted", and print in grayscale. That image negative will help you determine exactly how deep to carve. For example, light skin tones on a photo will appear black, signifying that you need to cut almost through the wall of the pumpkin to achieve a lighter (brighter) image when the pumpkin is lit.
  • Use what you have on-hand. Masking tape will hold the image onto the pumpkin just fine, and even attach a sewing needle to a ball-point pen or dowel rod to serve as a makeshift awl. A cereal bowl serves as a great pedestal for the pumpkin while carving, keeping it securely balanced. A cheap scoop from a pumpkin-carving kit or a soup spoon is all you need to hollow out the pumpkin.
  • Cut the bottom off of the pumpkin. This is really the best way to keep a great stem intact, prevent the lid from falling into the pumpkin as it dries out, and to make lighting a cinch.
  • To get down to transferring the image and carving the pumpkin:
    • Use a kitchen knife to carve a good-sized hole into the bottom of a pumpkin. It should be large enough to accommodate your hand so cleaning is easy.
    • Clean out the pumpkin, making sure to get rid of all hanging strands and seeds. I also try to get the top-most layer of the pumpkin flesh scraped out, in order to make the lighted image brighter.
    • Trim your printed image down to a half-inch border all around, and use masking tape to adhere it to the pumpkin. 
    • Transfer the image to the pumpkin by using an awl or needle to create hundreds of tiny holes on the surface of the pumpkin. Don't be intimidated by the complicated pattern you see upon removing the paper from the pumpkin! 
    • Using the original image as your guide, use the linoleum cutters to gouge out the skin of the pumpkin. I recommend starting with the largest areas first, and then working down to the smaller detail. Try to gauge how deep to cut into the flesh using the negative image. The white areas on the image should be left uncarved; the black areas should have the most flesh removed. However, make sure that you don't carve all the way through the wall of the pumpkin!
  • Check your progress in the dark. Keep a votive or pillar candle on hand so that you can periodically check your work. Once you're happy with your carving, or to make sure you're on track, turn out the lights and place the pumpkin on the lit candle. It'll help you see what areas need more work. 
  • Make your image If you're pleased with the carved image but want it to be brighter, it's much faster to scrape out more flesh on the inside of the pumpkin than on the outside. Scrape carefully, layer by layer, checking the image in the dark, until you achieve the desired brightness. 
  • Go beyond candles for lighting. Although a flickering candle is eerie in a jack-o-lantern, twinkle lights can be just as effective (and a lot safer). Just wrap a string of 50 twinkle lights around an empty jar, plug in, and voila!