Art & Design

4 Ways to Elevate Pumpkin Carving to an Art this Halloween

Raise your pumpkin design skills with expert advice on how to carve, or commission, a show-stopping jack-o’-lantern

Following canceled events in 2020 and the recent easing of lockdown restrictions, retailers in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. are expecting the biggest Halloween celebrations in years, with American consumers alone expected to spend a staggering $10.4 billion on Halloween 2021. So, if ever there was a time to go all out, it’s now—and according to design experts, this year’s top trend is for a pumpkin display that verges on art.

But how to select, design, and carve—or commission—your gallery-worthy pumpkins? Here, four professional carvers share their advice on creating bespoke pieces that are sure to steal the show in spooky style.

1. You Can’t Be Too Inventive

Pumpkin carver Gene Grenata surrounded by faces carved on pumpkins
Master carver Gene Granata is known for his skill in recreating portraits in pumpkin form. If you’d like to commission your own likeness, he recommends using a photograph with a lot of light and dark contrast as a reference.

Pumpkin carver Gene Granata of Masterpiece Pumpkins has been at the top of the carving profession for 25 years. He’s created bespoke pumpkin art for Hollywood actor Nicolas Cage and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, and, most recently, he’s worked on commissions for Halloween Kills (the latest installment of the Halloween movie franchise, currently on screen in North America and the U.K.).

His creations are made using two techniques: stenciling and sculpting. Stenciling sees the pumpkin’s skin cut to create holes. Sculpting is when outer layers of the pumpkin’s skin are removed to differing depths to allow light through when the fruit is lit.

For this year’s display, Granata recommends creating a scene or montage. “The idea is to design pumpkins that interact with each other,” he says. “For example, you could create a large, scary-faced pumpkin and then a series of smaller ones looking afraid. Or a zombie appearing to climb out of the ground, with one pumpkin as his face and another as his hand. Come up with something unique to make people look twice,” he says.

When it comes to commissions, he recommends letting your imagination run riot. “The sky’s the limit. The more inventive, the more amazing the final product will be,” he enthuses.

2. Pick the Right Pumpkin

A skeletal head shaded onto a pumpkin
Known for his skill in pumpkin shading, which allows light through without fully piercing the flesh, Jamie Jones also makes carvable artificial pumpkins, ensuring your bespoke carving will last forever.

U.K.-based carver Jamie Jones of Pumpkin Freak, who regularly takes on movie commissions and has worked with Warner Brothers this year, believes a carving only becomes art if it’s on the perfect pumpkin.

“Look for one with a long stem, and always pick the heaviest of similar-sized options,” he advises. “Then check the skin for any dark patches or bruising and make sure the stem isn’t grey or soft.” He also suggests creating a design on paper and then attaching it to your pumpkin to guide your work. For the carving itself, he recommends using wood carving chisels, clay ribbon cutters, or Lino cutters.

Jones isn’t keen on real candles to illuminate his creations. “I use waterproof rechargeable outdoor lights,” he says. “Put them on when it gets dark and they’ll last for around five hours.” LED spotlights are another good option. For commissions, he recommends selecting “a specific theme or supplying images of people.”

3. Use the Right Tools

Carver christian Russel creates pumpkin art on an enormous one-ton pumpkin
Known for his colossal jack-o’-lantern creations, such as this record-setting one-ton carving, Christian Russell was recently invited to the Chelsea Flower Show in England where he carved the face of a mountain gorilla on to an 88lb (40kg) pumpkin.

“I absolutely live for Halloween, it can’t come round soon enough for me,” says avid horror fan and artist Christian Russell of All Carved Out. Although he’ll happily take on smaller pumpkins, Russell has made a name for himself carving giant jack-o’-lanterns. Back in 2017 at York Maze in England, he carved what was then (unofficially) the world’s largest pumpkin—weighing in at just under a ton.

His top tip for creating pumpkin art is simple but effective. “Everyone hates scooping out the pumpkin, but using the right tools—like a sturdy metal ice cream scoop—makes short work of clearing the insides,” he says. He then recommends using a very sharp knife, “the sharper the better to create clean lines.”

If you’re trying the sculpting technique, “The trick,” Russell says, “is to go as deep as possible without breaking the flesh. This creates dark shadows and makes the finished carving ‘pop’.” Or, if you’re cutting right through, he recommends drawing straight on to your pumpkin and following those lines to create your design.

4. Consider the Details

A carving of Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars
Nick Folkes, who holds a day job as an undertaker, often uses his spooky season hobby to recreate pop culture references such as Star Wars characters—and even the lead singer of Queen, Freddie Mercury.

Nick Folkes of South Coast Pumpkins, who takes on around 30 Halloween commissions each year and has created pumpkin art for Penguin Books and the U.K.’s Jubilee Sailing Trust, has an unconventional starting point.

“The first thing is to cut a hole in the bottom of the pumpkin, not the top. It looks a lot better when it’s finished,” he shares. When it comes to scooping out the insides, he stresses that it’s “really important” the flesh should remain a consistent thickness.

For commissions, Folkes believes it’s best to go with a description of what you’d like and allow your artist of choice to find the visual references. And for him, taking a photo of the finished creation is as important as the carving itself, in order to create a permanent record. “I wish I could do this all year round,” he grins.

Banner image: Getty Images