Halloween pumpkin carving is evolving from a kid's craft to a genuine medium for artist expression. While triangular eyes and a snaggletooth smile are still as cute as ever, if you want to try to challenge your carving skills you may want to consider taking a stab at 3D pumpkin sculpting. In this tutorial you can learn the basic tools and skills needed to start carving out your own 3D pumpkin creation.
Step 1: Tools and Materials
To make pumpkin carving an enjoyable experience, you really need to have the right tools for the job. Plastic tool kits and dull kitchen knives won’t cut it when it comes to shaving away layers of pumpkin. Here is a list of preferred tools for 3D pumpkin carving:
- A pumpkin!
- Reference photos or objects
- Stencils (optional)
- Pen or marker
- X-Acto knife
- Large ribbon tools (traditionally used for sculpting clay)
- Small ribbon tools
- Metal carving tools (also referred to as dental carving instruments)
- Wire loop tool (optional but helpful)
- Copper scrubbing pad
- Scotch-brite scrubbing pad
Picking the right pumpkin is a very important part of the process. Since the pumpkin rind in only 1-2 inches thick, the shape of the pumpkin needs to resemble the shape of your final sculpture. That way you can keep the detailed portions of your piece close to the surface where the pumpkin is most carvable. As you get closer to the center, the pumpkin meat becomes stringy and harder to work with. More details about that to come.
Step 2: Sketch or Trace Your Idea
Since pumpkin is a subtractive medium, sketching or tracing your ideas onto the pumpkin first is a great way to avoid making mistakes that can't be undone. Even though these lines will be cut away later, they will help you in the beginning of the process. For this butterfly masquerade pumpkin, a butterfly stencil was made in advance, placed on the pumpkin and traced onto the pumpkin rind with a ball point pen. An orange pen was used in this case so that any residual marks would be difficult to see against the orange surface. If you use a Sharpie marker and are having trouble getting the lines off, try using isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol.
Once you have your lines in place, its time to start removing material!
Step 3: Remove the Skin
Now the fun begins! To make sure you get a nice, clean edge along your sketch it helps to trace your lines with an X-Acto knife. The knife only needs to go through the skin so it is not necessary to press hard or make a deep cut.
Next, using a ribbon tool, more commonly used for sculpting clay, you can begin to shave off the tough outer skin and reveal the lighter colored pulp (also called the "meat"). Small ribbon tools are handy for tight corners and more detailed work but larger ribbon tools can expedite the process. It is important that the ribbon tools are sharp enough to get the job done but not so sharp that they will inadvertently remove large chunks of pumpkin. If your tools need sharpening, a file, wet stone or even a piece of sandpaper can help you get a better cutting edge.
Step 4: Remove the Pulp
Up to this point, the process of carving a 3D pumpkin has been similar to other pumpkin carving techniques, but now the sculpting aspect comes into play. The key to sculpting the shapes you want in a pumpkin is understanding that the deeper you carve, the "stringier" the pulp gets. In other words, try to keep things close to the surface if you want to add details. However, to make certain features of the carving stick out, it is important to push the limits of the pulp and carve deeply into specific areas. If you are carving a face, as in this tutorial, the deepest parts will be just below the nose and below the chin. In fact, a large piece of pumpkin was cut out entirely and removed just below the chin to add a dark shadow to contrast the lighter colored chin. As the pulp begins to get stringy, it may become necessary to abandon your sharp tools and use something more gentle such as a wire loop tool. This tool has no sharp edges so it will mostly remove material by smushing or smoothing out the pumpkin fibers.
Start the face by roughing out the shapes for the eyes, nose and mouth so that you can be sure they are in the ideal locations and in the right proportions before finalizing the design. Since the areas below the nose and the chin will be the deepest, its a good idea to begin in those areas. The location of the eyes are perhaps the most important because the viewer is always drawn to those first. For this pumpkin, the cutouts in the mask help to position eyes in the right place, similar to a grid.
Since this pumpkin is a face behind a mask, the small ribbon tools are going to be the main working tools. They can fit into tight spaces and can shave away nice clean layers. Another great tool is a dental instrument with a sharp edge. These tools tend to have a slender point so you can really get into tight areas.
Make sure to clean up as you go, especially on your pumpkin itself. The paintbrush is a great way to sweep off all the little pumpkin shavings that may be getting in the way.
Step 5: Take a Break!
Pumpkin carving should be fun, but after a few hours you may begin to lose your enthusiasm. The best way to take a break without watching your pumpkin wither away is by getting your pumpkin dripping wet, then wrap it in wet paper towels, and finally use plastic wrap and a trash bag to lock in the moisture. Clear some space in your refrigerator and gently place your pumpkin inside for the night. The pumpkin will be preserved for about a day. Longer than that and it begins to dry out and change consistency.
Step 6: Detail and Finish
Now that you're rested and ready to go, its time to begin the final touches to your beautiful masked lady. Its important to remember that creating shadows and highlights are what will really make your pumpkin stand out. The best way to get dark shadows is by using your X-Acto knife to make deep "V" cuts into areas such as creases and wrinkles. In the female face shown here, some of the areas that need dark shadows include the eyelid, clusters of hair, between the upper and lower lips, the eyebrows and of course the iris and pupil. The mask itself will create quite a few dark shadows so there is no need to go crazy for this particular piece. If you're carving a monster with wrinkly skin or gnarly teeth, then the X-Acto knife will get a serious workout at this stage.
Since we are doing long hair and smooth skin for this pumpkin, it is important to get a nice polished surface to really finish the presentation. This is best accomplished by using a copper scrubbing pad to remove any tool marks or uneven surfaces. Stainless steel scrubbing pads will leave a grayish residue on your pumpkin so try to stick to the copper scrubbers. This technique is especially helpful for doing the hair because you can smooth out the surface in the direction of her hair, then go back and cut deep grooves to accent certain areas.
Once you're happy with the overall smoothness, give it a final polish with a plastic scrubbing pad such as a Scotch-brite pad. This will add a nice shine to the pulp right before the photo shoot.
Just before you're ready to call it quits, add a few extra accents to your pumpkin to really make it impressive. For this pumpkin, a couple strands of hair were added over the corner of the mask by simply using a shaving created with the ribbon tool. In this instance, the hair was just pressed onto the wet pumpkin. The same goes for the highlights in the corner of the eyes - just add a strand of pumpkin into the pupil with water as your glue. If you decide to add bigger pieces such as ears or horns, you can join them to the pumpkin using toothpicks and super glue. One warning though - the super glue works surprisingly well but it will leave a white film on your pumpkin as the pulp dries out.
Step 7: Light and Photograph
Now that you've worked so hard on your pumpkin, its time to snap a picture and show it off to your friends. Its important to get the lighting just right so that your audience can see each detail. The best way to do this is with a single light source such as a desk lamp or studio lamp. This will create harsh shadows on your pumpkin and leave the background dark. It will be necessary to use a tripod or table to keep your camera still while shooting or else the image will likely be blurry. It may also be necessary to set a timer on the camera since sometimes simply pressing the button will move the camera and make the picture fuzzy.
Hopefully this tutorial will give you the basic information needed to make your own creative pumpkin sculpture next Halloween. Happy Carving!!