Finished pumpkins from Ray Villafane’s pumpkin-carving class are arranged on the floor. Pumpkin designs can vary with infinite possibilities to try. Photo taken in Scottsdale on Oct. 8, 2023. (Photo by Emily Mai/Cronkite News)
SCOTTSDALE – 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.
Download pumpkin-carving stencils here.
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.