Halloween isn’t just for children who love to carve crude jack-o-lanterns. The holiday is for artists, who spend hours or days designing, sketching, tracing, marking, carving, and decorating the ideal pumpkin into creative designs.
Growing up, I thought pumpkin carving was only a few hours of fun. I would open the top of the pumpkin, remove the insides all over the table to the dismay of my mother, and carve into the face of the pumpkin with a large, sharp knife and very little precision. As I got older, my brother, Kirk, showed me that carving pumpkins can take a lot more time and skill, and sculpting pumpkins has become his favorite tradition each year.
First, Kirk would find or create a design for his pumpkin. Sometimes this planning would begin a week in advance. Using pictures from the internet or from his imagination, Kirk would print or sketch a pattern that was the perfect size for the face of a pumpkin and had only black, white, and gray tones.
Sometimes he would combine two or more images, like he did a few years ago to depict a Mech Warrior destroying the skyline of Chicago in flames. It is important to pick a pattern that isn’t too detailed but still fun, because tiny jagged pieces of pumpkin break off very easily.
On the day of the carving, Kirk would tape and retape the design onto the face of the pumpkin so it was tight and close. It took some time to shape the flat piece of paper onto the round image. It needed to be secure so it wouldn’t slide later and ruin the image. Sometimes he would pin it in multiple places with pushpins. (A single dot here and there will not be easily seen in the final product.)
Before opening the pumpkin for the first time, I suggest carvers lay a large tarp underneath the work surface. No matter how careful the artist is, there will likely be seeds, flesh, and goo on hands, tools, and clothing. The pumpkin also needs to be very secure. I usually sit on the floor so I can cradle the pumpkin in my lap and use both hands.
Even adults should take sharp objects seriously and concentrate when working on the pumpkin. Halloween of 2009 would have been much better if I hadn’t sliced my finger open with a box cutter when trying to get the nose piece out of my ghoul.
Rather than immediately tracing the pattern with a knife once it was secure, Kirk would use a pushpin or needle to poke a thousand tiny holes along all the lines he intended to cut. This marked the area and got it started so the image could then be carved with a box cutter or other precise instrument. The tiny dots needed to be deep and very close together. This was the most time-consuming part of the process.
Something about pumpkin carvings I didn’t originally know was that the flesh can be cut in different depths. Patterns don’t need to be made solely by cutting all the way through to the center of the pumpkin. Instead, sometimes the flesh can be thinned enough to allow light from inside the pumpkin to glow through without a complete hole being made. This is especially useful for small details, because it is hard to be precise through the entire depth of the pumpkin.
With patience, Kirk and his friends were able to make pumpkins with Mech Warriors, Predator vs. a T-Rex, the Jack Daniels logo, the globe, a cougar, and dragons engulfed in flame. Each year provides new opportunity for Kirk to outdo the previous year’s work and to teach other adults to appreciate pumpkin carving as more than just a quick arts and crafts project.
Entire websites are dedicated to this once-a-year event. ExtremePumpkins.com provides free tips and designs, and hosts a carving contest each year with winners displayed on the website. The site has creative ways to carve and light pumpkins, including using power tools to carve.
The pumpkins can be decorated with wigs, paint, leaves, or even other pumpkins in addition to the actual carving. A lot of cities have local pumpkin carving contests worth entering each year, where carving is done on site and judged by the crowd. Although Kirk will be pressured to work within a time limit, he considers these contests every year and hopefully will enter this Halloween of 2010.
Finally, the best part of creating the perfect pumpkin is lighting it and watching your work glow. To display the pumpkin for long periods of time (such as on the porch Halloween night), put a candle inside the pumpkin, but make sure the pumpkin isn’t next to other flammable objects.
For intense but brief flames, try a little bit of kerosene—with caution. Have your camera ready, and make sure the flash is off and the exposure is high!
If the pumpkin burns quickly, it will leave very little charred flesh inside and will still be cool to the touch on the outside. A little bit of burn inside the pumpkin will harden the exposed flesh inside, and will slow decay naturally.
On Halloween children get costumes, candy, and grimacing jack-o-lanterns to call their own. They sing “The Monster Mash” and run around the neighborhoods as the sun sets, dressed as horrible, funny, or beautiful objects. But, at age 23, Kirk will tell you he doesn’t mind Halloween as an adult. After all, who else can say their pumpkin is a piece of art reminiscent of a Jurassic scene?
Carving can be a social experience, with groups of peers in a circle working together and comparing designs, racing, or sharing tools. Pumpkins have brought me closer to my brother and friends, and I don’t mind getting messy orange goo in my hair once a year for the sake of outdoing my older brother with my art.