History ... or How I Started Carving Pumpkins And Learned to Love It!
How did I first get into this? I guess I've always loved Jack O'Lanterns. I remember my dad carving a pumpkin for Hallowe'en and a classroom event in elementary school climaxing with the eating of roasted pumpkin seeds. All very exciting. Then life got in the way.
That's right, I grew up. Sort of anyways. I finished school, got a job, met the love of my life and got married. We bought a house and moved in. In a neighbourhood filled with all kinds of children. Hallowe'en came screaming back into my life in a big way.
At first I carved the traditional jack. You know the one. Three triangles and a mouthful of teeth. It was kind of fun and brought back all sorts of memories. And for most people, this is where it would stop. But most people aren't married to my wife. As far as I know, only I am...
Perhaps I should disgress for a moment and mention that by training and profession I am a scientist. Computer scientist actually. I don't think of myself as the most stodgy of science types, but I am a science guy. Okay, a nerd. There. I said it. So naturally I fell in love with and married an artsy. An incredibly talented and beautiful artsy. Ahhh.
It was this incredibly talented and beautiful woman who one year (I don't remember exactly when) suggested we try something more for our pumpkin at Hallowe'en. We had been working on a play with a local theatre company and one of the props required for the show was a jack o'lantern. So we went out and bought a Pumpkin Master's kit (Pumpkinmasters.com - still an excellent place to begin a carving hobby) and my wife drew one of the patterns on a pumpkin (a carved pumpkin wouldn't have lasted the three weeks of the show). Hallowe'en was right after the show and suddenly we had a carving kit. I wasn't so sure. We had two pumpkins and my wife carved one of the patterns that came with the kit. It looked good, so I tried it and I was hooked. Unfortunately there was a whole year between then and my next chance to try my hand at carving.
Eventually we went through the entire kit of pictures, some twice. We bought some more patterns and did them. Then one year, a couple of years after our daughter was born, inspiration struck me. We were at a Walmart at Hallowe'en and I saw a jack o'lantern model on a shelf. It had hands built into it to open its mouth so it could stick out its tongue. I didn't see this thing again until 2013 at my daughter's school, but that was enough. I thought that that 3D model would look cool in a pumpkin carving. I resolved to design it and carve it. Pumpkin Jack was born.
Okay, so he wasn't some earth-shaking work of art. The point was that he was my very first creation. His creation was driven by inspiration. He also started me down the path to the creation of better art.
I also was a little disappointed in my original design. It was a compromise. I had a vision for what I wanted him to look like and had no idea how I would do it. This is where experience comes in. To the left is what I wanted Pumpkin Jack to look like. But I wouldn't start experimenting with scaping methods until 2007 (see the section on sculpting techniques) so the first Jack from 2004 was the one and only Pumpkin Jack. It and its more complete cousin are now a part of my Pumpkin Faces collection.
With Pumpkin Jack done I realized that I wanted to do more. I came up with a pattern for something I called "Scary Guy" but he was starting to drift back into "traditional" templates. So I tapped back into my childhood and decided in 2005 that I wanted to carve Scooby Doo.
This was a bit ambitious for the skills and knowledge I had at the time. There are people out there who had the skill to take images and turn them into simple carving patterns that ingeniously let the eye fill in whatever might be missing (the above mentioned Jay Ball is a good example of this). I'm still not one of these people. My Hulk image above is the only pattern like this that I have produced so far as I will discuss shortly. So what did I do? I went the harder way to carve. I converted a colouring page into a pumpkin template.
This was a painful and complex process to accomplish as it involved carving a lot of very thin lines which still had to let light through. It should also be noted that this was the first year my wife (handing out candy while I took our daughter out trick or treating) started receiving compliments on "her" work. Hmmm. It should be noted that she gave up carving a number of years prior to this as my choice of increasingly complicated patterns left her behind because of her chronically sore back. More complex patterns require more time which she did not have. Sorry honey. :( I really enjoyed this as a couple thing.
The year 2006 brought Shaggy and Scooby and Beauty and the Beast. The Beast was exceedingly complex and my work continued to bring compliments from visitors including some people who said this was becoming a tradition for them and one woman who said her husband, an artist, could do this or better. He denied he could. Had I been there, I would have agreed with his wife. I believe that with practice and patience (oodles and oodles and buckets of patience) anyone can do this.
This is the time when another challenge reared its head: how do I top myself? I began looking for more work that would look cool and outdo what I did last year, but nothing struck me as "IT". I should also explain that I had been aware of the 3D technique of carving pumpkins (done by choosing one of carving through, removing some pumpkin to a limited depth or leaving it alone) for a little while. I had surfed the net and seen some pretty amazing stuff. It scared me. I didn't think I could do it.
Finally I resolved that I would try it. I decided to try carving the Last Supper (pattern by Jay Ball, pumpkinglow.com) for Thanksgiving (celebrated on the second Monday of October here in Canada) because I loved the pattern. All the elements in the original pattern are carve through, so I chose to scrape (not carve through) all the clothing and hair elements. The results were amazing. The flickering of candle light combined with the carving technique not only made the image seem 3D, the figures on it almost seemed to move. I was hooked once more!
This is also when I learned that my chosen form of art is best viewed in the dark. I also had to learn how to use my digital camera to take pictures in the dark without the flash going off. I did figure it out, but not in time to get a good picture of the Last Supper. Live and learn.
I would carve four pumpkins for Hallowe'en in 2007. One was a haunted house pattern from the Pumpkin Wizard which I'd been itching to try, a custom shot of Fred Flintstone and Homer Simpson, the Disney princess that was my daughter's costume that year and my first photograph-based template of my little girl. This was also the first year my daughter (age 7) carved a jack o'lantern. She carved my original Pumpkin Jack. Her idea, I swear!
But wait! I wasn't done with 2007. Not yet. The saturday after Hallowe'en was a church Christmas sale (believe me, no grass grows under their feet!) and I decided I would do a carving exhibition. I grabbed a copy of Jay Ball's Nativity pattern and a watermelon (try and get a pumpkin after Hallowe'en! I did.) and carved it. People were politely curious and even dismissive until I lit it up. Again, wow!
That should be enough for anyone for one year. But not for me. No sir. Believe me when I say that the process of transforming a large piece of fruit into startling art is addictive! The limiting factor used to be that pumpkins are seasonal. But I had discovered watermelons! So when a Christmas party came along I couldn't resist doing one more. It was my favourite pattern design from 2007: A Visit from Saint Nick! I had to promise my wife that was it for the year. Winter, Spring and Summer can be long and lonely times!
First up in 2008 came my first custom commission job. My friend Gary owns Burdin's Comics here in Hamilton and I had done fun carving for him before. However, he had just had a new logo created for his store using the Hulk so I decided to surprise him. It turned out to be one of those simple but brilliant patterns that I love Jay Ball's work for (and can't claim credit for as the pattern practically designed itself!). No scraping involved. And, unless you are VERY good at viewing negative images, this pattern only works in the dark. He was VERY pleased and kept his pumpkin and lit it up to stare at it each night until it rotted into a pool of goo. Something I don't recommend, by the way.
The one complaint about the 2007 pumpkins was the lack of a Scooby carving. I produced some the best work of my life and people missed Scooby Doo. I guess I did too because I immediately started work on this pattern which took over 10 hours to complete. Scary. It's the biggest and most complicated pattern I'd tackled to date. And it worked!
Other than a carving of Batman and the Joker for a Hallowe'en party and a cat for my daughter's class (incidently, the same pattern my wife did for the play all those years ago). I promised the wife I'd cut back after 2007. She didn't mind the number of carvings. She minded the work involved in such a short period of time and the fact that we only got to enjoy the pumpkins for a few days. That's when she suggested artificial pumpkins...
That brings us to 2009. Artificial pumpkins have a limited season too. It seems the focus is around Hallowe'en. Michaels begins to stock their craft pumpkins around June/July. I haven't used Funkins yet, but, as I understand it, they will sell you their pumpkins until they run out of stock. Guess when they renew their stock? That's right, as Hallowe'en approaches.
What's the difference? Their prices are comparable. Funkins has a greater variety of pumpkins. I don't have to pay Michaels to ship pumpkins to me. That's about it.
I decided to use the Michaels craft pumpkins. I wasn't sure about using the foam pumpkins at first as they are much thinner, lighter and tougher than a real pumpkin. I started with my friend the Hulk from the previous year. It is a simple design involving only cutting through. It worked well, so I carved the Tiger-cat logo, the professional CFL (www.cfl.ca) team based in Hamilton, Ontario. Read all about them on their website at www.ticats.ca. It was more complex and involved scraping. When that worked I moved on to Buffy (Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series), then, finally the Tenth Doctor (from Doctor Who), one of the most complex designs I had crafted. To see the rest of my efforts, visit the Halloween 2009 page.
The aftermath of 2009 is that I now have a small pumpkin gallery I can show off of my work. Also visit Burdin's Comics (1369 Main St E, Hamilton Ontario, http://home.cogeco.ca/~gburton7/) and Gary will happily show off his permanent Burdin's Comics Hulk.
This year I also signed up at CarvingPumpkins.com. This is an excellent resource with over 1000 fun and mostly complex patterns that will challenge most carvers. Three of my 2009 carvings were from this site. Go there. You will be inspired!
That's about it for 2009. My daughter (she's 8) carved her second pumpkin, a black cat, with very little intervention from me and I've included it on the Hallowe'en 2009 page. That's my girl! I will carve a couple of pumpkins for Christmas, but I will include them in the 2010 gallery!
The work for 2010 began in 2009. If you think that's confusing for you, try living it! The carving of the Hulk to the left was actually the first carving I did in 2009. The reason it is here is because I discovered artificial green tealights at Dollarama at Christmas time. So now a new technique for enhancing carvings has arrived: coloured lights!
And speaking of Christmas, as promised I carved two pumpkins for the season. The first was my "A Visit From St. Nick" pattern from a couple of years ago. It is now a permanent part of my collection. The second carving is again of Jay Ball's nativity pattern. Due to depleted stock at the end of November, all I could get for this was a white artificial pumpkin. When I lit it up, my wife said it seemed a little cold. The orange paint on the surfaces of the rest of my collection added a necessary warmth that this was lacking. To solve this problem I lit it with two regular and one red tea light. You can see the results on my Halloween 2010 page and in the thumbnail to the left.
I completed the 2009 season (ending, naturally, at Hallowe'en) with 40 patterns in my online collection, some carved and some not. My goal was to increase that number to over 100 by the end of June when I expected to see the return of artificial pumpkins to Michaels. As of the end of June I have 282 patterns and counting. Inspiration continues to strike and I am finding pattern creation nearly as fun as carving the patterns. The bad thing is that I want to carve them all! Bwah ha ha!
Michaels got in their foam pumpkins later this year on July 30th, setting back my planned start date by three weeks. I was going to try to carve one pattern per week, but instead ended up putting off some patterns to the start of the 2011 season (in other words after Halloween).
Each year seems to have one pattern I classify as "The Most Ambitious Pattern I've Ever Tried" and 2010 was no exception. This year marked the second year the family made to sojourn to Toronto to visit the geekfest that is FaxExpo. While there we met the writers and artist behind my favourite new comic of the year Kill Shakespeare. They are Conor McCreery, Anthony Del Col and Andy Belanger. We talked for a long time and eventually (surprise) the topic turned to pumpkin carving. They were impressed so I eventually emailed the link for this site to them. One thing led to another the the result was a Kill Shakespeare carving for the cover of the first issue. Let me assure you that carving a feather in a human hand is NOT something that is easy to do. The process of carving this particular pattern became the subject for my new page about carving mind-bogglingly complex patterns!
The rest of the season passed as usual. I told the story of the Headless Horseman and carved that pattern for the school my daughter Dayinarah attends. For Hallowe'en I put up a tent in the front yard to shield my pumpkins from the nearby streetlight and filled three sets of shelves with carved artificial pumpkins. It was awe-inspiring! To the right Dayinarah plays Vanna for the 2010 pumpkin gallery. It is now part of history and now it is time to look forward to...2011!
To view my completed 2010 carvings go to the Halloween 2010 page.
Once again I started the new season early by carving for Christmas. This image of Santa Claus was based on a publicity picture done by Coca Cola. Also at this time of year I put together my plan for the next year's pumpkins and decided to start assigning a theme for each theme. Not all pumpkins carved would follow the theme and the theme could draw from previously carved pumpkins. I then tried to create themes for previous years. The theme for 2011 would be "Science and Magic."
This theme came from my wife's request to see several magicians carved and my desire to carve characters from The Big Bang Theory. Add some Buffy, some Doctor Who, a couple of famous scientists and maybe a certain detective wizard. At this point I have started to notice that I have a LOT of carved pumpkins and have started to consider re-using existing carvings in future themes.
This year Michaels got out their craft pumpkins in early July (together with their Christmas crafts). Also there appear to be more people buying them, so my usual plan for waiting for the end of the Halloween season and buying several at 50 and 60% off won't work.
As a part of our annual traditions we have added a new one: Fan Expo. Each year I carve two or three celebrities who will be in attendance, take a picture of the carving and get it autographed. I also take a printout of the picture with the original picture and a photo of the unlit pumpkin on the back as a gift for the celebrity. This year we visited with Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series), Kevin Sorbo (Hercules, Andromeda), Victoria Price (Vincent Price's daughter) and Christian Potenza (voice and commercial actor).
And as for Halloween, I put out all the pumpkins I carved, and not just the ones related to this year's them. Dozens of them. They filled the front yard and a good section of the back yard. It was huge. It also took an hour and a half to break down that night after Halloween was over. An hour and a half after setting it all up and taking my daughter trick or treating. Never again!
For a new treat this year, I met another pumpkin carver from the Hamilton area and she introduced me to the new Hamilton pumpkin walk on November 1st at Gage Park. The basic idea is for your genius work of pumpkin art to get one last chance to shine together with many other works of art. At the conclusion of the evening, all the real pumpkins are recycled. Magnificent!
To see the carvings for the 2011 theme of Science and Magic, click here.
I did a Christmas carving again this year. I received a gift of a Funkins pumpkin and decided to try out my Ebenezer Scrooge pattern on it. I had imagined that they would be similar to the pumpkins I buy from Michaels, and they are in that they both resemble pumpkins, but the similarity ends there. The Funkins are easier to carve because they are softer. It also makes it harder for them to hold finer details and easier to removed parts you don't want to have removed. I was constantly glueing back on pieces. And the colour of the material is a deep orange with affects the colour of the light emitted from the pumpkin. The results of the Ebenezer carving is to the left. I was not satisfied with the results and must re-carve it on a Michaels pumpkin some day.
Okay, so about the theme for 2012... I asked my wife to pick something. And, you know, she chose "Romances." Hmmm, do I say no? I did ask. So the theme for 2012 is Romances.
Another decision for 2012 was to recycle pumpkins for the new theme. I have a lot of pumpkins and not a lot of places to put them, so I wanted to reduce the number of new pumpkins by including existing carvings in the new theme. This affected my choices by making me consider ways to pick carvings to match the new theme. So my featured selections for Romances became Leonard and Penny from The Big Bang Theory, The Doctor and River Song from Doctor Who, the many romances of Buffy, Jack and Rose from Titanic (observing the 100th anniversary of the sinking) and our wedding. In all I selected 10 patterns including 3 that are new and featured them one by one as the patterns of the month for this website.
We went to Fan Expo again this year. As usual there were way more guests to meet than we could possibly afford, but a few did strike our fancy. Juliet Landau (Drusilla from Buffy) was coming and we had previously had James Marsters (Spike) sign a picture of the two of them. We knew we could not miss the opportunity. Also in attendance would be Stan Lee (together with Jack Kirby) the virtual father of Marvel Comics and John Carpenter, maker of horror movies including Halloween. Highlights of the year included an encounter between my daughter and a Dalek, meeting Christopher Lloyd and getting to chat with Juliet Landau for nearly 20 minutes. I can't wait for next year.
This year I did a great deal of pro-bono work. The first such piece was a carving for Canadian Blood Services ... the vampires! I carved it and delivered it on the day of my donation in October. They were all instantly smitten with it and kept it on display in the donation room of the building. Then I got an invitation to have my picture taken with the pumpkin and ended up in their newsletter. A copy of the article can be found in a pdf file here.
Next I turned my attention to my daughter's new obsession: colour (or winter) guard. Since fall 2011, she has been working with a group that twirls flags and sabers and rifles, all in time to music and they even include dance. It's quite exciting and she's becoming quite good at it. Her group is called Legacy and they've even travelled about completing.
I also did something to commemorate a great man. Lincoln Alexander accomplished much in his life: police officer, lawyer, politician (the first black man to do so successfully in Ontario) and Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, to name just a few. However, many in Hamilton will remember him as the gentle and kind man known to everyone as "Linc." He died this year after a long life and was given only the second full-dress funeral in Ontario history. Remarkable.
I couldn't let the occasion go by without carving a tribute to the man and presenting the resulting jack o'lantern to Millar, Alexander, his law firm.
Rest in peace, Linc.
Let me conclude 2012 with one of my Romance pieces: Jack and Rose from Titanic. Please enjoy all the carvings for 2012 here.
No Christmas carving this year. I had ambitious plans for the Doctor Who 50th anniversary and didn't wish to conflict with them by using a pumpkin from my increasingly limited backlog for a non-related carving. This way I figured I would have more pumpkins available for an early (pre-July) start on carving. And besides, I had already carved my favourite Christmas patterns.
As it happened, my only early carving was a demonstration at a charity event for my daughter's winterguard group Legacy: the TARDIS, pictured to the left.
The spring also played host to a fun and interesting event I would like to take the time to plug: Ad Astra. This is a literary genre convention. What is that you ask? The focus here is on the printed word. The guests are authors, publishers, editors, illustrators, etc. Furthermore, in addition to ***FREE*** (with the price of admission) signings, the weekend is structured around discussion groups and workshops of various kinds all weekend. The odds are pretty good that if one of the guests happens to be an author whose work you happen to admire, you will get the opportunity to not only rub elbows with the author, you may even get the opportunity to disagree with his or her opinion.
The guest of honour of this year's convention was Jim Butcher (Eeeee!), the author of The Dresden Files series and the Codex Alera series (look them up!). I could not resist the opportunity, as is my tradition, to present him with a picture of a carving of his hero, Harry Dresden, as pictured on the cover of the first book of his series. It was really cool meeting him.
However, to be perfectly honest with you, the best part of the weekend were the discussions. I loved them all and wished I could attend them all. If this sounds interesting to you, please click here and check out what they're doing for yourself. Maybe I'll even meet you there.
The pumpkins came early again this year. As July arrived I started into my mammoth task of carving all eleven Doctors. I started with the first Doctor and worked my way through them. However, as I got to the sixth Doctor, I noticed that the pumpkin I got for him was different from the other Michaels pumpkins. This one was lighter and the paint was glossier. As I started carving it, scraping it resulted in the material I was removing coming aways in dust. When I slipped a light into it, I noticed that the material didn't readily let light through, so I had to scrape the pattern until the material was very thin and extremely fragile. In the end, the face of my carving broke and I wasted days of work and the money for the pumpkin. I ended up recarving Colin in another pumpkin. Beware of this treachery from Michaels and I do hope that next year doesn't find these sub-standard fakes as the only product the craft store sells.
Speaking of Colin Baker, this year there was exciting news... he would be paying a visit to Fan Expo, the huge Toronto genre fan convention. I had always wanted to meet one of the actors, but never thought I'd get the chance, and now one of them was coming here.
There there was more exciting news. In celebration of Doctor Who's 50th year, another convention called Reversed Polarity would be happening in November and the guest of honour would be Peter Davison, the fifth Doctor. Wow! Two Doctors in one year! I started carving faster!
This year saw the return of the sub-standard artificial pumpkins to Michael's, although they were interspersed with ones of better quality. I purchased a few of the good ones to enforce my preference and let the store manager know of my preferences and while. I bought out all of the artificial pumpkins at my local Target and drove around the city searching unsuccessfully for more. This is a much better quality pumpkin that even the better one at Michael's and the base cost is only $17 compared to $36.
This year's theme was selected by my daughter. She picked, simply, "Monsters." I expanded this to "Monsters, Those Who Hunt Them and Their Creators" so I could include some of my Buffy carvings, the new Doctor, the Scooby Gang as well as Stan Lee and John Carpenter. It was also serendipitous that Lou Ferrigno, TV's Incredible Hulk, was appearing at the 2nd Annual Hamilton Comic Con, so the Hulk was also added to the list!
In addition to Lou Ferrigno, this year's Hamilton Comic Con also featured Garrett Wang who played Ensign Harry Kim on Star Trek: Voyager. I was never impressed with Harry Kim, but Garrett Wang is a gem! Seriously, if you get a chance to meet him, do so. However, the real reason I mention this is that his carving, to the left, was my first ever run at a 4 layer carving. To recap, most people indulge in 2 layer carving, that is, cut or leave. I've included scraping in my carving for year to produce a more realistic, or even 3D, effect. Now I've included two layers of scraping instead of one to achieve more shading and even greater realism to the results. In 2014 I started experimenting with the concept both in terms of creating patterns and in carving them. It was still too early to replace my planned carvings with new 4 layer versions, so stand by.
I've also included Pennywise the Clown here. Why? Hello, creepy without trying too hard. Tim Curry was incredible in this part and the carving of him maintains the creep factor beautifully. Gives me chills.
This was also the first year I've noticed other people carving my patterns. What a thrill! I've included Linda's carving of my personal favourite Dalek pattern.
Also included is my fresh pumpkin carving of Robin Williams. I have many great memories of his hilarious performances and was greatly saddened by his loss, so I paid him the best tribute I could. The pumpkin I carved him on was also grown in my own backyard!
I got the news at the end of the season that my favourite new pumpkin supplier, Target, is closing all of it's stores in Canada. This created a belly full of panic for me. Not only was my new source of inexpensive and excellent quality artificial pumpkins closing, but my only other local supplier, Michael's, seemed to be phasing out their line of higher quality pumpkin for a lower quality version.
Would I be able to find a new supplier? Halloween shopping trip to the States? Might I have to abandon my artificial pumpkin carving hobby?
Wow! A real life cliffhanger!
Urban Fantasy was the theme for 2015. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, basically in involves fantasy stories (magic and legendary creatures) in a contemporary, urban setting, typically a city. This particular genre is becoming increasingly popular these days in film, television and literature. One of the best current television example is the show Once Upon A Time and a stand out favourite character on that show is Rumpelstilskin portrayed by Robert Carlyle. It is a joy to watch him in the part, especially since there are so many variations on this character. The best has to be the uber-creepy original fairytale world character. This is the one I carved and which is displayed to the left.
Another superior example of urban fantasy on television and in movies has to be Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Pictured to the left is my carving of Kristy Swanson as the 1992 movie Buffy.
These two carvings are demonstrations of the two different carving techniques I employ: 3 and 4 layer carving. Rumpelstilskin is an older pattern using the 3 layer technique. Buffy was created with the 4 layer method. Note the effect on the carvings. Using 3 layers, some features are forced to vanish into black. In the 4 layer carving, more depth and detail are revealed providing a more complex and realistic image.
Okay, I guess I left you in a bit of a cliffhanger last year. Well I worried about my pumpkin supply all winter. I worried into the spring as well. I believe a little of the summer passed as well. I had a plan. I would travel down to the States to do a little cross-border shopping and hope that the customs people didn't want to know what was on the inside of the pumpkins and break them open. I knew that Target Canada had them in stock, so it stood to sense that the US company would as well. The only problem here was that they were not typically in stock until late September leaving me with precious little carving time. We do what we must.
July arrived and, on a whim, I went to Michael's. July is when the Halloween material begins to arrive including the artificial pumpkins. I trudged in and saw that they had, indeed, arrived. I walked over and picked one up. It was one of the higher quality pumpkins! I proceeded to check them one by one. THEY WERE ALL THE HIGH QUALITY PUMPKINS! I let out a little whoop.
The store manager had seen me enter and tracked me down. She said that she had complained about the quality of the pumpkins and it seemed that she was not the only one. Michaels switched exclusively back to the better pumpkin. Of course, I bought one on the spot!
To find out where to start and if you've got "the stuff", go to How Do I Do This Thing?