Southern California weather has never been kind to my jack-o-lantern attempts. Our warm weather can encourage mold growth and sagging/ collapsing a mere 24hrs after a pumpkin is carved, so I found an alternative in foam tabletop decorative gourds at Michael's crafts. Receptive to both carving and sculpting techniques, these little guys were really versatile. As a bonus, the small scale allowed me to make multiple characters without a daunting time investment. I was able to create some really expressive and cartoony faces with simple techniques and tools most of us probably have in our craft stash.
Obviously, your gourd goblins will vary from mine. Experiment with different shapes, colors, and proportions! I'll walk you through the basic construction and provide some painting and finishing tips that apply across the board. These make a great party project and if you're a little quirky, they can stay on the table all the way through thanksgiving dinner!
Step 1: You Will Need...
Foam Gourds --I bought a 6 pack at Michaels for under $5. To test the material, gently squeeze the gourds. They should NOT feel like hollow hard plastic. They should be solid, with a bit of give to your pressure. The "skin" will be like a layer of rubbery paint that coats the styrofoam core.
Plastic Wiggle Eyes --The more variety, the better! Use various shapes and sizes. Some craft stores carry wiggle eyes with colored irises, but I went for the classic look here.
Hot Glue Gun
Sharpies -- Colors close to your gourd base colors are good for making guidelines that won't be a pain to cover up later. Try orange, red, or brown instead of standard black.
X-acto Knives-- I like to use a small rotating blade for cutting mouth outlines, and then a standard X-acto for digging out the excess foam.
Smooth-On Free Form Air -- This is a 2 part epoxy-type clay. Very light weight, easy to work with, and it doesn't require baking (which is important since you don't want to stick foam gourds in the oven).
Wax Paper --This is just a work surface protectant. I prefer wax paper to something like newspaper since you can do clay work without spreading ink prints everywhere.
Orange stick --Like the kind used in manicures
Various small paintbrushes
Acrylic craft paints in gourd friendly colors -- Not surprisingly, I found that colors with names like "pumpkin orange", "country red", and "marigold" were actually great matches for the foam gourds' existing paint.
Step 2: Idea Sketches
Before you commit to splicing and dicing, observe your gourd shapes and do some idea sketches. Let the shapes do the work. You may find certain gourds have a bit of natural attitude that speaks to you, determining which gourds are angry, scary, derpy, etc. Try the same face with the eyes closer or farther apart, or move the mouth up and down the face until you land on a personality you like. Some might have open mouths while others are closed. Once you've got a game plan, you can start committing with your materials.
Step 3: Eye Attachment
Plug in your hot glue gun. Observe basic hot glue gun safety by keeping the gun upright while heating. Protect the work surface underneath the nozzle from drips with scrap paper . Never leave a plugged in hot glue gun unattended.
Apply hot glue to the back of a plastic wiggle eye.
Referencing any idea sketches you may have done, press the eye in place on the surface of the foam gourd.
The hot glue should take secure hold pretty quickly.
Repeat with your various eyes until everyone has their peepers on.
* You may notice that the curves of some gourds permit the hot glue to show on the back side of the eye. Don't worry--this will get covered up when we move into the sculpting phase.
Step 4: Mouth Carving
Draw Guidelines -- I feel better making cuts if I have even some faint guidelines to work from. Choose Sharpies somewhat close to the color of your gourds. In this case, orange and red worked well. This way if you change your mind about where to cut, the marker lines are easy to hide under our the ultimate paint job.
Put down some wax paper to work on. There's going to be little foam bits everywhere, and you'll be glad you can just roll up the mess and throw it away when you're finished.
Use an X-acto knife with a rotating blade to trace the outline of your mouth. No need to go very deep on this initial pass. You're just trying to get under that layer of paint skin and clearly define your mouth shape. The blade should drag easily through the soft material and rotating blade will make it easier to capture curves.
Use a traditional X-acto knife to lift the "skin" away from the mouth. In most cases you can then peel it off in one piece.
Continue using the traditional X-acto to hollow out a recess for the interior of the mouth.Creating this hollow gives you a place to set features like teeth and tongues. The styrofoam will come out in pieces and you can use the tip of the knife to scrape away stray flakes and even out the surface. Since it will be painted black, you don't have to make it perfect. You also don't have to make it terribly deep to be useful. Look at the profile photo of the cyclops gourd. That is deep enough to house some teeth, but not so cavernous that we start to compromise the durability of the gourd.
Roll up your work surface paper and dispose of all the foam bits. If you have pets in the house, make sure to check the floor for stray pieces.
Step 5: Sculpting Main Features
Mix equal parts A (white) and B (gray) of the Smooth On Free Form Air clay. I suggest mixing only small amounts at a time so you don't have a bunch left over that hardens before you can work with it. Smush and roll the halves between your fingers until the mass is a uniform light gray. Close the tub lids between uses to prevent the top layer from hardening.
To create basic features, roll small "snakes" that work as eyebrow ridge and lip forms.
Blend the features onto the gourd with your fingertips, forming a smooth transition between your add on and the gourd surface. It doesn't matter if the edge of this transition is a bit ragged, because your paint will disguise that later. If you find that your finger tips are too large to work in tighter spots, you can also use the flat side of an orange stick to blend the clay.
Free Form Air has a handling time of 4hrs, though I like to allow a full 12hrs to dry before painting just to be certain.
Meaty brow ridges blended into the greater gourd cover up that hot glue that was peeking out from behind the eye before. You may add lip edges to hide the border of the mouth, if you made jagged cuts that bother you, though not all gourds need this to look good. Ultimately, I removed the lips from the orange lopsided pumpkin because they were competing with the eyes too much.
Step 6: Sculpting Tools/ Techniques
Since your gourds will vary from mine, I decided to demonstrate the two simplest carving techniques on a generic dummy eye.
Toothpick --dragging the tip of a toothpick through the soft air clay with give you a thin, well defined line excellent for under eye wrinkles or separating teeth. The sides of the indent you create may be a little ragged, but I find these imperfections help make the faces feel organic.
Orange stick --the round end of the orange stick is ideal for making indents with smoother sides and are great for adding texture to brow ridges. Holding the stick parallel to the table, press it gently into the clay. To further define the texture, you can hold the stick perpendicular to the table and push the tip into the dent between brow segments.
Using a combo of these techniques on each gourd will help bring them to life and make each one believable and unique.
Step 7: Painting Basics
I'll be making use of that dummy eye again to show any first time painters out there the basics of using highlights and lowlights to accentuate your sculpted features. If you're an experienced painter, colorizing your clay add-ons will be pretty self explanatory and you can skip ahead to the the pro tips.
Start with your Base Color. This is the color that most closely matches the main color of your gourd. I used "Pumpkin Orange" here was surprised how well it matched despite looking a bit neon in the bottle.
Use a small, flat brush to get quick coverage of your forms. You'll use fine tip brushes later to add detail.
While the base color is still wet, apply some low light color to the areas of your sculpt that are most recessed. Your low light color will be several shades darker than your base, and typically on the same side of the color wheel. To work with orange, I used a deep red, but you might also consider brown, darker orange, or even a burgundy. Working with this color while the base is still wet will allow for the most organic shading and blending possible.
Key places to apply your lowlight color are the corners of the eyes, inside the tracks of the eye wrinkles, and in the ridges of the brow.
When your base/lowlight application is dry, apply your highlight color. This color will be several shades lighter than your base, and usually on the same side of the color wheel (but doesn't have to be). To brighten orange, I used "Marigold", though you may consider bright yellow or even white for an extreme highlights.
Dab the highlight color on the parts of your sculpted features that are most raised (where the light would hit the strongest). You'll see the progression in the photos and realize just how much extra dimension your highlights and lowlights provide.
When all your paint is dry, apply a coat of brush on acrylic gloss to blend your add-ons with the glossy skin of the faux gourd.
Step 8: Painting Tips
Paint from the inside out. Start with your deepest layer: inside the mouth. Cover the raw styrofoam with a generous coat of black acrylic. When that has dried, move on to the teeth or tongue. Painting outward decreases the chance of missing your target area and blobbing paint somewhere that you'll have to fix later.
Use the faux gourd's irregular pattern to help blend your add-on sculpt.Take note of the color, size, and density of the dappling on the gourd. Mimicking this pattern with your highlight, lowlight, or a third color will help unify your piece and make it believable.
To really make features jump out, use a fine tip brush to apply thin lines of black on top of your lowlights for extra contrast. Good places to use this would be between teeth or in the crease of a closed eye.
Multi Media Accessories-- While I don't think a ton of sequins and glitter is the right tone for this project, a little tasteful bling can provide an extra boost of personality. The gold tooth on angry gourd is actually a piece of foil wrapper from a reese's peanut butter cup, smoothed flat and bonded in place with the clear acrylic top coat. If you find that one of your gourds needs an extra little something, go through your craft scraps to see if anything strikes you; a ribbon bow, a foil appliqué, false eyelashes, etc.
Unexpected color pops can bring a piece to life. My burgundy gourds were so dark I wasn't sure the features were reading as clear as they could. Even though lime green wasn't part of the gourd's natural palette, a little dab of this complimentary color as a highlight brightened up the cyclops gourd and drew attention to the eye.
Step 9: Gourd Goblins!
Now you have a basket full of everlasting mini jack-o-lanterns! I really loved that this project gave me the opportunity to explore a number of faces so I didn't have to pick just one favorite. Make some that look like your family members, friends, or one for each little voice in your head.
If you enjoyed the Gourd Goblins, please send them a vote in the Halloween Decor competition and post photos of your own in the comments below!