I love Halloween. And by love, I mean LOVE. All of it. Insanely. Especially pumpkins!
Making stencils for pumpkin carving (using Photoshop):
- Find a photo–I used two of the new HP7 posters (here and here) to make these two examples–save it, open it in Photoshop. (Keep in mind your carving skill when selecting, as exceptionally complex images may result in a thoroughly mangled pumpkin or a trip to the ER when you slice yourself trying to execute the design.)
- Image > Adjustments > Desaturate
- Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast (You’ll need to increase both of these, the picture will dictate how much. Contrast will likely need to be between 75-100. Play with the sliders, it’s a matter of mucking around til it seems right.)
- Filter > Artistic > Cutout (More sliders. Levels should be at 3, edge simplicity probably 3 or 4 and fidelity in the 2 range, but play with the settings – it’s a matter of still being able to identify the subject while making the design as carve-able as possible.)
- Nope–not done: now it’s time to finesse the design. The important thing is to remember that dark areas can’t be in the middle of light ones (as that’s a cutout – get it?) without some sort of support. You’ll need to take your brush tool and adding (or subtracting) black, white, or mid-tone wherever necessary to improve the look or the structural integrity of the design. This will take time, really thinking about the limitations of the medium (dude, pumpkin is not forgiving–once a cut is made you can’t take it back), and you may want to use Image > Adjustments > Invert to see the design differently (in order to identify possible problems for carving). Save different versions, don’t be afraid to tinker with it. And also keep in mind that it’ll need to be big enough and bold enough to be seen clearly cut into a gourd and lit from within.
- enough room to work–think kitchen table–and cover the working surface with newspaper, a garbage bag (cut up both sides so it opens), tarp… whatever.
- clothes suitable for the task (seriously–if you dremel you will be covered in pumpkin pulp)
- good lighting: can’t stress that enough – I borrow my son’s gooseneck desk light and angle it as needed
- a large safety pin and scotch tape
- something to scrape the insides of the pumpkin with: I grew up using a hella big spoon for pumpkin-gut removal, but I’ve found the plastic scraper in pumpkin carving kits works better for scraping the walls clean, as it offers more control (less gouging from varying pressure) and less chance of getting the handle wedged.
- something to cut with: Those pumpkin carving kits at the shops–you know, the ones with the ‘safety’ knives–do work (they can be less precise, but also less likely that you’ll injure yourself). Remember: a sharp knife is safer than a dull one.
- Also useful (and have used all of these): a drill (both for piercing small cut-outs in the design and for the initial piercing into which a cutting tool can be inserted to lop off the top of the pumpkin), dremel (allows for controlled removal of layers of pumpkin flesh but requires patience), a nice riesling (for after, lol).
- Lop the top of the pumpkin with a large knife or the coarser of the two pumpkin carving tools (remember to go in at an angle so the top can sit back on–ie, not fall in–once you’re done) . De-goop (pick out the seeds – roasted pumpkin seeds are yummy!) and scrape the walls clean, including scraping the bottom flat so the candle/light won’t fall over.
- A pencil or ballpoint pen works for drawing on a design (make sure the pumpkin skin surface is dry before drawing)–when I was a kid I was handed a knife and expected to freehand it – but I, a. don’t hand my kids sharp knives, and b. expect drama to accompany mucked-up designs or mis-cuts, so it’s better for all involved to go at this with a bit more forethought (or stock more wine).
- When using a stencil it’s a little more complicated: tape the stencil on the pumpkin so it doesn’t shift around on you. Bend the safety pin a bit, so it’s easier to hold like a stylus, and then carefully prick through the paper along the lines of the design (ie, you’re creating a pin-prick follow-the-dot on the surface of the pumpkin). Once you’ve finished prick-tracing every line, remove the stencil (do not discard!), rub a paper towel across the surface to remove any excess moisture, and then write over the dots with your pen so the lines are clearly visible. Use your stencil as a guide if you run into areas where lots of holes converge. Once the line-drawing is in place, X over the areas that will show lightest (ie, need to be completely cut-out), and use a different mark on the areas that will show up mid-toned (gray on the stencil)–I usually just put a ~.
- Cut out the X’d areas–just use a straight cut, finessing can be done once the next cuts are in place, so you know where you can trim, structurally, and where you can’t (translation: when the walls of the pumpkin are thick there is more flesh between the light source and the external skin–obviously, yes?–this means that to actually get full light showing through some cuts it’s necessary to angle-trim the pumpkin flesh toward the light source – think arrow-slits in castle walls.)
- Next to go are the ~’d areas, but this is where some patience is necessary. You can use a blade or a dremel – the goal is to remove the outer skin and enough of the flesh so the light can still pass through (probably half of what’s there, possibly more if it’s really thick… too thin can be a problem, structurally, so if you need to go part-way and then check it in the dark–lit from within–to see your progress, do). Only after this is done will you know where the weak points are, so as you trim the larger cuts you can avoid collapsing the whole design.
Tip: If you’re carving well-before Halloween, coat all exposed flesh (cuts and pumpkin interior) with petroleum jelly – it’ll help the pumpkin stay hydrated (ie, not shrivel) and keep it from rotting as quickly. (Or put it in the fridge, if you live somewhere very warm this time of year.)
Last year I carved six pumpkins of varying complexity… this is the best, I think:
(Edited 11/1 to add)–And here’s how they turned out (both quick phone shots): The first took a little less than three hours. I was running late and rushed through the second, finishing in somewhat over an hour and a half (I carved a total of five pumpkins this year–my hand is still cramped).