Introduction: How to Carve a Realistic Face on a Pumpkin

I have always found sculpting fascinating. A few years ago I discovered these amazing carved pumpkins and they were so cool that I had to try it. It is a very fun process to see how the face starts to emerge slowly. It can turn into an elaborated project, but family, friends and neighbors really enjoy the final result. It is a great feeling to have people come on Halloween to look at the pumpkins. I hope that with this tutorial you can have lots of fun. Pick your pumpkin, grab some tools and enjoy the process!

Step 1: Choose the Right Pumpkin

Selecting the right pumpkin can make a big difference. You want a pumpkin with thick walls, with a lot of meat to carve in. Look at all the pumpkins with a similar size and get the heaviest one. Preferably with an oval shape, looking at it from above.

Step 2: Tools and How to Make Your Own.

  • Set of sculpting/carving tools. (Very useful but, not necessary.) Instead you can make your own tools (see explanation below).
  • Potato peeler or knife
  • X-acto knife
  • Old tooth brush
  • Scrub sponge
  • Spray bottle (with water and lemon juice or vinegar)
  • Vaseline
  • Paper towel
  • Plastic wrap

How to make your own tools.

Before I got the set of professional tools, I used to make my own tools with a tuna can. It is easy to make them but please be careful not to cut yourself. Using the tin from the lid cut a small strip (around 2in long), the width will depend on the kind of shape you need. With a pair of pliers carefully bend it in the shape that you need. (square, round, small loop) then you can use an x-acto handle to hold the new “blade”.

Step 3: Design and References

Sometimes this step can be the most difficult for me. You want something original, fun, creative and at the same time, easy to carve. If you don’t have much experience carving or sculpting, choose something simple. A face with a good expression and personality is more important than a very complicated one. Look at your pumpkin. What does it look like? Is it long and skinny, or wide and squishy?

In my experience, the expression of the eyes and eyebrows is very important. A big nose is always funny but teeth are difficult to carve (stay away from teeth until you gain some experience). Again, choose something simple that you’d feel confident carving and be happy with the result. If you go for something difficult and you are not happy with it, chances are you won’t carve a pumpkin again.

Look for reference images or take some pictures of yourself making that expression. A mirror can be handy to study what happens to your face when you make certain expressions.

Step 4: Preparing the Pumpkin

After giving a good bath to your pumpkin start removing the rind (skin) from the area where the face will be. Don’t cut the pumpkin open or remove the guts because it will go bad from the inside out before you know it.

I use the big loop tool, but you can use a potato peeler or a knife. Remove the rind only where needed and avoid removing any meat. The rind could be harder than what you think. Be patient and be careful with sharp tools.

Step 5: Start Blocking in the Face

Start with the placement of the eyes and the nose. Roughly mark where the eyebrows will be. Do the contour of the nose and the bottom of it. Now get away from the pumpkin and see if it makes sense from faraway. If you are happy with it, keep getting those lines a little deeper. Go slowly, there is no rush. Pumpkin meat is very soft; tools don’t need to be sharp. Instead of cutting it, try scraping the surface of the pumpkin.

Don’t remove meat from the tip of the nose. We want that part to pop out as much as possible.

Continue carving the eyelids and the eyes. Keep in mind that the eyes are spheres and the eyelids wrap around them. Don’t go too deep yet.

Time to block in the mouth and cheekbones. At this point is very important to know where the corners of the mouth are. That will determine where the smile lines go. Is it sad or happy? After the smile lines, you will block in the cheekbones. It is never a bad Idea to know something about anatomy but don’t worry. Look at your reference images and follow them.

Step 6: Keep Carving

This is the longest part. Basically, you have to slowly keep carving. Making those lines and shapes deeper and deeper. Define the eyes better. Eyelids, the bags under the eyes, wrinkles, nostrils, mouth, chin and forehead.

How much deep you can go will depend on the thickness of the pumpkin. The deepest points will be the corners of the eyes by the tear canal, and the upper lip, where the smile lines meet the nose. Go slowly. If you feel the pumpkin is getting very soft, it means you don’t have much meat left. Try not to cut through.

Work the whole face at the same time. For example, don't focus only on the eyes. Instead, keep everything at the same stage. By doing that, you will know if the pumpkin is still thick and you could push in all the features and expressions even more. The idea is to make the nose, eyebrows, chin and cheekbones pop as much as possible by carving around as much as possible.

Try to avoid hard edges (unless it is in you design). Faces don’t have sharp edges. You can use the scrub sponge to smooth the whole surface. And just keep working on it until you are happy with the result.

Don’t forget to keep it moisturized with the spray bottle as often as you see it getting dry. That will help the pumpkin last longer.

Step 7: Details

One simple and very important step is giving definition to wrinkles and folds. Remember this kind of pumpkin will relay on lights and shadows. There is no paint or colour that help with the shapes. And it doesn’t have a candle or light inside.

Take the x-acto knife and make those wrinkles a little deeper to create bigger shadows. Key places to do this are the eyelids (between the eyeball and the eyelid, and between the eyelids and the brows); around the nostrils and the smile line; and the mouth. Keep in mind that not all the wrinkles need to be deep.

Step 8: The Eyes

I always leave the eyes for the end. It is a very important part that needs to be done slowly and carefully. If it goes wrong, it will be almost impossible to fix. There is an order that needs to be followed: eyeball, iris, highlights and pupil.

Lets start with the eyeballs. For this part you will need the sharp x-acto knife. Make sure you have a nice sphere for the eyeball. Now determine where the iris will be. Is it looking sideways, up or down? You can use something round the size of the irises (like a pen’s cap) to place it on top of the eyeball, as a guideline. If the object is a little sharp you can gently press it and mark the placement of the irises. If it is not sharp, take the x-acto knife and gently mark the circle around the guide. Then go around the mark cutting straight into the eyeball, around a ¼ inch (6mm) deep… and stop!

A very important part is the highlight of the eye. It will give a lot of “life” to the pumpkin. Do this by cutting a little square shape part that will go as deep as the rest of the iris. Now it is time to gently clean the iris, being careful not to accidently brake the highlight. Try to go a little deeper around the edges to create a deeper shadow around the contour of the iris.

I’ll give you a secret. If the highlight brakes or you think it is not in the right position you can cut it and glue it back in place with superglue. Superglue works perfectly on the pumpkins. Look in the pictures how I repositioned the highlight. You can even cut it out from another area.

Now it is time to cut the pupil. The pupil is just the black circle in the middle of the iris. With the x-acto knife cut a small circle and clean it out. You can use the back of a pen to push it deeper and make it round. Again, avoid braking inside the pumpkin if possible.

Step 9: Cleaning and Conditioning

At this point you should have an amazing carved pumpkin to be very proud of. Congratulations! Unfortunately it won’t last for too long. However, you can do a few things to preserve it a little longer. Spray it with water and lemon juice or vinegar regularly during the carving process. If you can’t finish it in one day or if you want to keep it hidden until it is show time, you can cover the carved area with soaking wet paper towels and wrap it on plastic wrap. Keep it on a cold place like the fridge or outside if it is cold enough like up here in Canada. In addition you can cover it with lots of Vaseline to keep the moisture. But you will need to clean the Vaseline off the pumpkin either to keep working on it or to display it (the toothbrush is good for cleaning).

Step 10: Thank You!

Carving pumpkins is very fun, it can be time consuming but it is totally worthy. I’ve been doing it for only five years and I can’t wait for next Halloween to carve more pumpkins.

I hope you have enjoyed this tutorial and that you have found it useful to carve your pumpkin. It is my first one so if you have any good advice to make it better, I’m all ears. If you have any questions let me know and I’ll do my best to answer. Thank you very much for following along until now and don’t forget to share your creations, I would love to see them.

Step 11: Time-lapse Video

Pumpkin Carving Contest 2016

First Prize in the
Pumpkin Carving Contest 2016