Starting off his career as a grade school art teacher, Ray Villafane eventually entered the world of professional sculpting. Over the years, he has cultivated his sculpting chops in a truly unique way, he mainly carves pumpkins. Check out the tips he shares here with us for creating your own cut-above pumpkin sculptures. For more information, check out Villafane Studios.
How did you first get into pumpkin carving?
Prior to becoming a professional sculptor for the toy and collectible industry, I was a kindergarten-12 art teacher in a small school district. While teaching, a student brought in a pumpkin for me to try and carve. It didn’t look ANYTHING like they do today, but it looked good enough for the kids to bring in more pumpkins for me to carve. This gave me plenty of practice. Over the years, the carvings haven gotten better, and when I eventually started sculpting them for a living, they got quite a bit better.
How do you know which vegetables will be good for carving?
I haven’t strayed too far beyond pumpkins when it comes to creating art out of produce, but I have experimented a little and plan on trying other veggies. Basically, you want something with a fairly consistent texture, such as a potato. You also want something that has a deep wall to carve, such as the upper portion of butternut squash. Density is also a factor. You don’t want something that is so hard that you need a Dremel tool to cut into it, but you also don’t want something so soft (like a tomato) that structurally doesn’t hold its own. The most important thing is to experiment and to have fun. And if it turns out bad, you can always eat it!
Your pieces have very intricate features. How do you plan out what the carving will look like? Do you sketch them out beforehand?
I’ve been sculpting long enough that I don’t usually need to draw plans. That is not to say that I don’t often find myself wishing that I would have left in some portion of pumpkin meat so that I could have incorporated this or that. Occasionally, if I’m bored and have sketching material available, I might try and design a pumpkin on paper, but that’s pretty rare. I generally just use the dry erase board in my head.
What are some carving tips makers can use in carving their own vegetables?
Here are a few tips:
- Start off simple. If you’re a beginner, do not attempt a really intricate carving, as it might become frustrating and discouraging.
- Work your way towards were you want to be. This will allow you to learn various techniques along the way.
- Having reference is also important to any carver, beginners or seasoned vets. When carving crazy animated faces, for instance, nothing beats a mirror! Reference photos can also be very helpful.
- Push the limits and use ALL of the pumpkin depth that you have available without breaking through. It is easier said than done, but with some experience, you’ll know when you’re about to break through.
- You really need to utilize the entire depth of the pumpkin in order to create a truly 3D-looking pumpkin. When carving faces, it’s usually the eye area and just below the nose that should be carved deepest. Go deep in those areas, but don’t break through! The very tip of the nose should remain untouched, with the exception of removing the rind.
Your work is very diverse, ranging from monsters to presidential portraits, what is your inspiration for creating these pieces?
In my opinion, it’s probably not diverse enough. I am guilty of sticking with faces, whether it be monsters or regular people. I tend to play around in this genre because, in my opinion, it brings life to the pumpkin. However, I plan on doing more diverse subjects such as animals and other things in the coming years.
What is the best pumpkin size and shape to create the best carving?
The right size and shape of a pumpkin really depends on what exactly you’re carving. For the most part, size doesn’t matter. I guess if the pumpkin is too small it might be difficult to put in intricate detail, but for the most part, a decent face can be carved into a 6-8 inch tall pumpkin. For faces, I prefer an oval shaped pumpkin that is taller than wider. I also look for pumpkins that are compressed and tend to carve the face along any protruding ridge that might run top to bottom. I rarely carve on the flat, round side of the pumpkin. Above all, the most important factor for picking out the perfect pumpkin is to find a pumpkin with a thick inner wall. The only way to find out this info without cutting it open is to actually pick up the pumpkins and compare the weight of one pumpkin to others of a similar size.
What tools do you need to create these magnificent pieces?
99% of the carvings I do are done with various-sized ribbon loop tools. These are standard tools for clay potters and sculptors. The great thing about these tools is that they are not sharp at all, keeping it safe for kids. I use a paring knife to sharpen up the details in the end, but you would be surprised how far you can get without ever using a knife!
Typical ribbon loop tools
How long does it take to carve one pumpkin?
If need be, I could probably carve a pretty decent pumpkin in 15-20 minutes. The more I carve, the more I push the limits. Some recent pumpkins have taken me the entire day to complete!
Is there a specific technique you follow to achieve the best results?
Never approach it like,”ahhh…it’s just a pumpkin!” For the best results, you need to give it your all. Forget that it’s going to rot in a few days. Pour your heart and soul into it, and cross your fingers it comes out well. Failure does happen, even with mine. I just don’t post the crummy ones :)