How to Carve Any Photograph Into a Pumpkin

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Being a Halloween baby, I get a little more into the holiday than is probably healthy. When I was a kid, this meant inviting a few friends over to my place to go trick or treating (it's easy to entice 'em when your place is a two-building complex with several hundred apartments' worth of loot to harvest) and ending the night by taking off my Strawberry Shortcake costume to look a little more menacing when we started playing Five Card Draw for candy (the large peanut butter cups were worth the most, obviously).

These days I'm still into the costuming (though I mostly reserve the gender-anonymous roles for my pets) and have tacked on pumpkin carving to my fall activities. Over the course of the last several years, I've taken to carving out likenesses of close family members. To keep things interesting I kinda sorta pretend I'm doing it in the order that I believe said family members are going to die. Yeah, my family has a thing for the dark humor.

My sister has been begging me to do her face for the last several years leading me to believe that she either has a strong death wish, or that she has no faith in the clairvoyant powers of my sculpted squash. This year, I finally relented

Alright sis', it's your own grave you're digging here.

Want to learn how to transfer your own family's likenesses onto a pumpkin? Here's how to do it, step by step.

The Tools

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These are the basic tools you'll need for the job.

  1. A chef's knife for removing the lid.
  2. A stiff metal spoon for scraping out ol' Jack's guts.
  3. Tape and scissors for securing your design to the pumpkin.
  4. A wooden skewer or a plastic design transfer tool for punching holes through your design into the pumpkin flesh.
  5. A black sharpie or other waterproof pen for drawing guides and sketching your design.
  6. A set of pumpkin carving knives for cutting out your design.
  7. Plastic wrap and non-stick cooking spray for preserving your pumpkin when you are finished carving.

Check out our Pumpkin Carving Toolkit Equipment Guide for more details!

Once you've got your tools, you'll want to set up your work area. I like to work at a large table covered with either a large cutting board or newspaper, in a very well-lit area. You'll want to have some paper towels on hand to wipe down moist or slippery knives and tools, as well as a large bowl to collect seeds, guts, and trimmings.

Step 1: Pick a Pumpkin

The best pumpkins for carving are relatively smooth; The ridges should be minimal—at least on the face you intend to carve—and the pumpkin should stand up straight when you place it on its bottom. Ideally, the surface you're carving onto should be tilted upwards slightly so that your carving will be aimed towards a kid-sized line of sight.

The best flesh for carving is dense and smooth, so, like a good fruit, your pumpkin should feel heavy for its size. Check the skin all over for blemishes and bruises—the smallest one can be a source for rot, reducing the lifespan of your pumpkin.

When handling the pumpkin, make sure to lift it from underneath, not from the stem!

Consider whether the image you'll be transferring will be landscape or portrait and pick an appropriate pumpkin.

With your pumpkin picked, it's time to move on to the design.

Step 2: Pick a Design

The title of this post is how to carve any photograph into a pumpkin. While it's possible to accomplish this, some will come out better than others. Selecting the right photo is important!

The best photos have:

  • Distinctive areas of light and shade. Your design will be recognizable primarily by its lightest and darkest parts. Look at the photo through squinted eyes and imagine seeing it in only black and white—no grayscale. If you can still identify it, then it's probably a good pick.
  • Wacky faces that won't look bad with a bit of distortion. No matter how careful you are, some amount of distortion is going to take place when you transfer the photo to the pumpkin due to the curvature of the fruit, bumps in its surface, and little errors in carving here and there. These errors can make a pretty face look skewed and disarrayed, but it'll make a goofy face look goofier.
  • Simple, head-on perspectives. Faces in side view and too much clutter can make a carving confusing. The simpler the better.

With all that in mind, this is the photo of my kid sister I picked to go with:

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It's head on, it's got pretty distinct light and dark areas (the sneer on the lip and the top of the nose and forehead are very light while the eyes, under the chin, and in the mouth are quite dark), and she's pulling a particularly goofy version of the same goofy sneer she pulls in all of her goofy-sneer photos.

Step 3: Edit the Photo

Now to get that photo into transferable shape. This will require the use of some basic photo editing software such as Photoshop or Gimp.

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The goal is to convert the image into a form that will most resemble what it'll look like in a lit pumpkin. This means you want very distinct areas of light and dark, and—most importantly—the dark areas cannot be islands. That is, they must be all be attached to each other and to the areas outside of the design, preferably at multiple points. This is because of gravity and physics and other such pesky realities we must face.

Here are the steps I've performed to the image.

  1. The original image, cropped to the size I want it—in this case my sister's face appears about 6 inches wide and 9 inches tall.
  2. Original image, converted to grayscale.
  3. Strong increase in contrast in order to get the basic shapes in place. You'll notice that her eyes have gone completely black, making it difficult to see her as human.
  4. Dodging around the eyes using Photoshops dodge tool to lighten them up.
  5. More dodging around the lips and chin to bring a bit more nuance into the shading.
  6. Removing the light background to the left of her head in order to see how her face will blend into the pumpkin. This is the final image I'll be working off of.

Step 4: Print

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Print the image out to the desired size.

Step 5: Cut the Lid

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I use a standard chef's knife to cut off the lid. Start by plunging the tip of the knife into the flesh, rocking it back and forth a bit, then removing it. Continue cutting around the lid using the same motion.

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When you're about half way around, cut out a triangular notch in the lid. This will make it easier to place the lid back on the pumpkin by giving it an orientation down the line.

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When you've made it all the way around, the lid should pop right off.

Step 6: Scrape the Seeds

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Use a metal spoon to scrape the seeds and guts out of the inside of the pumpkin. I like to give it a good once over at the start before buckling down for a more intense scraping session.

Step 7: Thin Out the Sides

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The goal is to scrape away the inside of the surface you're going to be carving on until it's about a half-inch thick. This takes a bit of elbow grease, but it's nothing you can't handle.

Step 8: Tape the Photo

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To transfer your design to your pumpkin, start by cutting it out of the paper, leaving a few inches of border around the area you'd like to carve. Cut four to six notches in the paper so that you can get it to lay relatively flat on the face of the pumpkin. The more smoothly you can transfer the design now, the less distortion there will be down the line.

Carefully wash and dry the surface of the pumpkin to remove any surface oils.

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Use tape to secure the design to the face of your pumpkin, then place the pumpkin on its base, step back, and look at it to make sure that the design is oriented how you want it. There's no turning back after this point!

Step 9: Transfer the Design

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Using a wooden skewer or the plastic punch tool provided in your pumpkin carving kit , transfer the photograph to the pumpkin by poking a series of close holes through the paper and directly into the flesh of the pumpkin.

You should feel it punch through and as you work, you'll pick up a rhythm that will help you convince yourself that this is something beyond mindless repetition. Self-delusion can be a powerful tool. Now's the time to use it, because this isn't a short task.

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Keep on following those lines. You want to trace the outline of every major shape you can find, whether it's a light shape or a dark shape or just a line. Think of this step as drawing yourself a map to completely uncharted territory. The more information you can pack into it now, the less likely you are to get lost down the line.

Step 10: Remove Photo

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Once you're convinced you've drawn enough lines, carefully remove the photo to reveal your work and notice that it is completely unrecognizable for what it is supposed to be. This is okay. Do not panic.

Step 11: Trace and Shade

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Next, use a thin-tipped marker to play connect-the-dots and fill in all the information you just meticulously transferred. Then, use a thicker marker to shade in the areas that are supposed to be black and the thin-tipped marker to cross-hatch the grayscale areas.

Once again, notice that your design is completely unrecognizable for what it is supposed to be. Again, do not panic.

What we're doing from here on out is shading. The completely light areas in your design will be sawed out of the pumpkin's flesh in big chunks and completely removed. The black areas will remain completely intact, skin and all, while the gray areas will have their skin removed and the flesh thinned out to various thicknesses in order to add the shading and nuances of the original photo.

Note that this is a completely different technique than simply trying to carve the pumpkin into a convincing three dimensional sculpture. Do not try and channel your inner Michelangelo. Instead, think Lite Brite on steroids. When all is said and done, the pumpkin itself will look very little like the original photo—until you shine a light out of it from the inside to reveal those nuances in shading.

Step 12: Cut Small Holes

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The general rule of thumb for carving a detailed pumpkin is to start from the center and work towards the outside of the design. This makes sense: as you carve, you weaken the pumpkin's flesh. Weaken it around the edges enough and you might accidentally knock out a piece you intended to leave in when you start working on the middle.

The exception I've found to this rule is small holes. I like to saw out the small holes—in this case the whites of my sister's eyes—at the very beginning, as I've found that pushing the saw through these delicate areas can be difficult when the rest of the pumpkin has already been weakened through carving.

If you've ever wanted to stick a knife through your sister's eyes, now's the chance. (Not that I ever wanted to...)

Step 13: Remove Skin From Details

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Next up, work on removing the skin from all of the gray areas. The easiest way to do this is with either an X Acto knife or with a linoleum cutter. Work slowly, making sure to follow all the lines and get all the details.

Step 14: Cut Large Holes and Trim

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Once the skin has been removed from the grays, use the saw to remove the large chunks of white space, remembering to work from the center outwards. If you have especially large areas of white, it's best to cut it out in sections. Use the X Acto knife to clean up the edges and trim down any leftovers.

Step 15: Work on Fine Details

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Next up, work on finishing up the ultra-detailed areas, which are usually around the eyes, lips, and ears. Remember—the deeper you cut and the more flesh is removed, the lighter the area will appear when it is lit. Use the original photograph as a guide to deciding how deep to carve each area.

I use a small flashlight (a cellphone flashlight works well) to check my progress as I go.

Step 16: Work on Shading

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The last stage is to work on the larger contours. The details in the eyes will bring your design to life, but the shading is just as important if you want the carving to have a real three-dimensional feel to it.

Step 17: Clean Up and Preserve

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With your design carved, it's time to clean up. Use a damp towel or an air-powered duster to remove bits of pumpkin debris that might be clinging to your pumpkin's surface, then use a paper towel dipped in alcohol or bathroom cleaner to gently swab away the excess marker. If you can't get it all, don't worry—it won't affect how the pumpkin looks in the dark.

Carved pumpkins have a very short shelf life. You can extend it by coating the cut surfaces in oil to slow the inevitable drying out that occurs. I like to use a can of non-stick cooking spray. Apply a light coating inside and out on all cut surfaces, and gently spread it around with a paper towel.

Should your pumpkin start to dry out and shrivel before your Halloween party commences, you can plump it back up and revive the design by soaking the whole pumpkin in a bathtub or cooler full of cold water for a couple of hours.

Finally, notice one last time that your design still looks nothing like the photograph you printed. You may panic a bit now if you'd like, but that panic will be short-lived.

Step 18: Light It!

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And there you go! Once it's finally lit up in a dark area, the fruits of your labor should reveal themselves. Your carving may require a few touch-ups here and there—particularly in shading levels and details—but it should be more or less recognizeable.

For the best results, set the candle inside the pumpkin off to the side so that the flame is not directly visible when viewing the pumpkin from head on. And make sure that the room is dark enough! You want to see the inside of the pumpkin and the light working its way through the flesh only—exterior lighting can ruin the effect.

You may notice that there appear to be some sort of flames coming out of my sister's scalp. This is because my sister's hair was so dark that the photo contained very little detail. Instead, I felt an uncontrollable urge to set her head on fire.

Peakid, I think I'm pretty sure I know how you're going to meet your untimely demise.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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