When Halloween rolls around, you don’t have to be an artist— or even think you’re particularly creative—to feel the pull of the pumpkin. The pumpkin reminds us of our childhood, of times when the whole family gave it their best shot. We knew that if our pumpkins weren’t perfect, they would rot and that would be the end of the embarrassment. And this is true today, my friends. Pumpkins still rot. So take a chance!
Last year, I sculpted some puppy pumpkins and sent the photos to the editor. Which is how I came to be invited write this piece. Even if you believe you’re not an artist, I encourage you to try this. Why? Because Bark and its readers inspired me to start pumpkin carving in the first place.
My technique involves removing the skin and sculpting the meat of the pumpkin, varying the wall thickness to create the design. When you punch through to the cavity of the pumpkin, you have a dark pumpkin with a flaming hot yellow color inside when it is lit. But if you don’t cut all the way through, you can create many layers of color.
• Find a photo or take a snapshot of the dog you wish to sculpt, either facing you or a side view. Print it out on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper for reference.
• Open the pumpkin. Use a sturdy knife (with a six- or seven-inch blade), just like you do for a traditional pumpkin. Create an opening in the top large enough to get your hand inside. To make sure the lid will not fall inside, angle the knife so that the tip tilts toward the stem and the handle tips toward you. This creates a shelf for the lid to rest on. Carefully work around until the lid is free, and then lift it out. (Reminder: Do not place your free or pumpkin-holding hand in front of the blade as you are cutting.) Clean out your pumpkin.
1. Take the large loop tool, hold it flat against the pumpkin and raise the handle so that the tool is at an angle. Pull the tool down across the pumpkin like you’re peeling a potato; do not dig in too hard. The deep orange skin will come off like wood shavings. Scrape only the area you intend to use for your design. (There is no need to scrape the entire pumpkin, unless you want to.)
2. Next, take the small triangle mini-ribbon tool and draw your dog in the area you have scraped clean. Use most of the scraped space. To draw, hold the tool perpendicular to the pumpkin and touch it gently on the surface. Tilt it like a pencil and drag it gently across the light meat (be careful not to press too hard, as this tool is breakable). When done correctly, a small ribbon of pumpkin will come off. Do the best you can—remember, it’s only a pumpkin.
3. Using the squared-off end of the depth tool, trace the outline of your dog (the line between the dog and the background). Again, place this tool perpendicular to the pumpkin surface, and keeping it against your drawn line, dig in a little (about 1/8 of an inch) to widen and further emphasize the outline. Do this all around, which will make the dog pop out a bit from the background. Then repeat this step one more time, until the depth is just over 1/4 inch. (If the wall of your pumpkin is thinner than 1 1/2 inches, just take off the first eighth; you can always dig deeper later.)
4. Take the large loop tool and place the tip in the groove you have just created. Lean the tool so that it bites into the outside edge of the groove and gently carve away that outside line, making this groove a bit wider. Now, your dog is really sitting forward.
At this point, it’s time to think about which part of your design you wish to be darker (leave the pumpkin wall thicker) and which part you would like to glow brighter (thin out the pumpkin wall). For example, if you want your dog’s eyes to glow, you would carve very close to the pumpkin’s cavity, even punching completely through).
5. Carve away the area around your dog just a bit. Then sculpt the ear. In the pumpkin shown in the photos, the ear is folded, so the top part is closer to the viewer and the flap of the ear is carved back somewhat to make it look like it is farther away. Start by using the depth tool as in step three. Dig in just a little. Then, as in step four, use the larger loop tool to carve away the outer edge of the groove. Once you have removed it, you can soften the look by gently carving away the remaining hard edge at an angle.
Check the pumpkin’s wall, and if there’s still enough thickness left, you can make the groove a bit deeper, which will cause the ear to be more prominent. After you’ve outlined the ears, do the forehead, cheeks, eyes and muzzle. If your dog’s mouth is open, or has a ball in it, outline and sculpt the ball, then the tongue and lower jaw. Repeat these steps to work though the rest of the design.
6. To create the fur and to emphasize the detail a bit, use the mini-ribbon tools. Experiment with these tools to see which ones give you the best result. In this example, the dog’s hair was created with the triangle mini-ribbon tool.
Once you’ve completed sculpting your dog, you can sculpt a half moon over the shoulder (or any other design detail that appeals to you). To do this, just draw the shape, outline and go through the steps again.
Many of my students put a battery-powered light inside the pumpkin and carve to the light, so to speak. If you light your pumpkin and feel it’s too dark, simply do some back-carving. Take the loop tool and gently scrape some pumpkin away from inside the cavity. Be careful and go slowly. Do a couple of scrapes and then check your progress with the light.
So, these are the basic steps—trace with the depth tool, feather or remove the outer edge and gently smooth with the large loop tool, then repeat. Just keep in mind that what you carve away thins the pumpkin wall, which will make that area brighter when the pumpkin is lit.
Here are my final words on the subject. You are you, so you will sculpt like you, not me or any other artist. This is what makes art, art. Remember, you do not have to make a dog portrait—this is Halloween, and you can make a vampire dog or whatever you want. Relax and don’t give up! When the big night rolls around, light the inside of the pumpkin. (If it’s a giant like I often use, a battery-powered camping lantern works well; for a classic-size pumpkin, try tea lights, a votive candle or a snap-to-activate glow light.) Then step back and admire your handiwork!