6 tips to unlocking your pumpkin’s potential (with Arizona stencils)

For many, carving a pumpkin is a beloved Halloween tradition. But for
Ray Villafane, it’s an art form. As a pumpkin artist with numerous
awards and a worldwide reputation, Villafane has turned this seasonal
craft into a masterful expression of creativity.

One of his preserved pumpkin carvings is alongside a 1,700-pound
pumpkin at The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa, but Villafane isn’t
just about the grand spectacles. He believes that every pumpkin,
regardless of its size, holds the potential for a masterpiece. For him,
the joy of art comes from the process and not necessarily the end
product.

“Sometimes it’s so satisfying to pour love into something that no one
else is pouring love into. It’s OK to pursue things for the joy of
doing it,” Villafane said.

Here are six tips from Villafane for finding the potential in any pumpkin carving.

1. Pick the right pumpkin

For the best pumpkin for carving, visiting a farm and purchasing it
fresh is recommended. Find a pumpkin with a green, nonshriveled stem,
which often indicates its freshness and higher moisture content.
Villafane suggests experimenting with pumpkins of various shapes and
curves. The chosen pumpkin serves as the foundation for the carving,
making it essential to capitalize on its unique features.

2. Get the right tools

Carving a pumpkin is a family-friendly activity during fall, so
finding tools that work well and are safe for children is important.
Though plastic store-bought tools may seem useful and safe, there are
better options, according to Villafane. He recommends using common
pottery loop and ribbon tools. These can be purchased from most arts and
crafts stores and are not sharp enough to hurt someone but will still
glide through a pumpkin’s hard exterior. If the tools are used
correctly, a knife is not necessary but can be used to create sharper
lines. However, rather than using a normal kitchen knife, Villafane
usually opts for an X-ACTO knife because it is safer and allows for more
control.

3. Think about your environment

Pumpkins will start to shred and pull apart rather than carve cleanly
if the environment isn’t just right. The texture of pumpkins will
change according to the temperature and humidity of their surroundings.
If the environment is too dry, use a spray bottle to keep the exposed
pumpkin moist. If the environment is too humid, the pumpkin may rot
quickly – it’s all about finding the balance. With this in mind, once
the flesh of a pumpkin is exposed to air, try to finish the carving in
one sitting. Villafane suggests carving within a four- to six-hour
range, and if more time is needed in between carving, wrap the pumpkin
in moist paper towels and put it in the refrigerator.

Carving a pumpkin will get messy. Rather than cutting out large
chunks at a time, Villafane’s style of carving entails removing small
shavings bit by bit. Make sure to set out a tablecloth and some towels
before starting for easier cleanup.

4. Find the right reference

Most people are probably familiar with the classic jack-o’-lantern
with triangle eyes and a toothy grin, but the possibilities are endless.
Stencils and reference photos are helpful tools to bring your pumpkin
to the next level. Villafane often uses himself as a reference for his
pumpkin creations. He originally got started by making silly or
contorted faces in the mirror to use as his reference. He studied the
curves and wrinkles in his own face and now uses that knowledge in his
art.

5. Getting started

Always make sure that the pumpkin is oriented to work with the design
in mind and that it will sit upright on its own when finished.
Villafane always starts by choosing the orientation of his pumpkin and
shaving the bottom down until it sits relatively flat and stable. Once
the pumpkin is upright, use the largest loop or ribbon tool available to
shave off the area of the pumpkin that will be used for the design. Try
to remove the dark, tough exterior of the pumpkin. This will make it
easier to get a feel for the space and expose the softer flesh to work
with.

In Villafane’s art, he does not often go all the way through a
pumpkin, but you can work any breakage into your design and make the
most of it. Start by carving out the large shapes and curves with your
larger loop tools. Blocking out general features will help establish
depth and finer details later on. If you are carving a face, the deepest
part of your carving should be around the tear ducts of the eye. On the
other hand, the tip of the nose is usually what sticks out the
farthest, so avoid removing too much from there. Using these guidelines,
you’ll be able to easily establish how much material you have to work
with. Still, pumpkin carving is a subtractive art, so do not be afraid
to break through the pumpkin.

“The secret is the more you break through, the more aware of the
material you are. No one’s broken through more pumpkins than me, and
that’s why I’m good at it. Failing is the key as long as you’re willing
to continue trying after you fail,” Villafane said.

To test the thickness of the area you are carving, you can try
pushing down with your finger on it. If the pumpkin flexes at all, then
the area is getting thin, so be careful. If the pumpkin doesn’t budge,
then there’s room to carve away more material.

6. Have fun and get creative

Ultimately, carving a pumpkin should be fun and allow for creativity.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with different tools, techniques and
mediums. You can carve out eye sockets and fill them in with potatoes or
carrots to add different colors and textures. Villafane often adds wire
limbs and simple props to his pumpkin creations. These extra pieces
bring the pumpkin to life and add dimension.

It’s important to approach pumpkin carving with an open and relaxed
mind. Villafane advises carvers to “quiet the mind” and free themselves
from self-judgment. This openness allows for genuine discovery and
playful experimentation.

“Don’t judge yourself, allow yourself to discover and play. Just
relax because it’s just a pumpkin and knowing that it’s just a pumpkin,
have fun because it’s temporary,” Villafane said.