Gourddarnit: Pro tips for carving your pumpkin 

A Cut Above

A trip to the pumpkin patch conjures grand ideas of what masterpiece you can etch into the gourd, yet we've probably all felt that sinking feeling when our eager carving leads to less-than-perfect results.

Luckily, we're looking out for your self-esteem, so we turned to master sculpture and College of Charleston professor Herb Parker. He's a nature-based artist, meaning he often works with natural materials like sticks, dirt, or rocks. Parker offered some tips for pumpkin-carving, whether you're decorating your front porch or shooting for the big bucks by entering your creation in a local pumpkin-carving contest (perhaps at Poe's, Hometeam BBQ, Wild Wing Cafe, or the Recovery Room).

The three-dimensional challenge. Drawing jack o' lantern faces on paper is one thing, but things get tricky when you start sketching on an actual pumpkin. When perusing options at the pumpkin patch, opt for one that has a flat surface on at least one side. This will give you a more level surface to work with, and you won't risk the thing rolling off your table when you loosen your grip. Of course, a bigger pumpkin will give you more room to create your magnum opus. Another key is to avoid pumpkins with soft spots, as this could indicate rotting. A sturdy stem is a sure sign of a healthy gourd.

Choose your weapon. While whipping out the power tools may sound like a good idea, keep it simple. "Don't use too long of a blade," Parker warns. He recommends using any blade that's about 3-4 inches long, like a kitchen paring knife. The control of a shorter blade will also allow you to get impressive detail. "Too long and it's hard to get detail or you can hurt yourself," he says.

Get a game plan. We've all had that awful moment when we cut a critical bridge necessary to conjoin pieces. To avoid mistakes, Parker urges, "Plan out what you're going to do by establishing parameters with drawings on the surface of the material first. Don't just jump in and freelance it." In fact, he recommends two or three versions to get a sense of the final product. And when working with the sometimes mind-boggling negative space of complicated patterns, don't rush. Parker suggests, "Darken areas that are voids to help visualize what the end product will look like."

Let's get creative. We've seen the standard jack o' lantern face a thousand times: two triangle eyes and a set of rectangle teeth. So, we asked Parker how to think beyond the standard goofy grin. The sculptor recalls his advice to his own kids: "I would have them draw out several versions and they would get more creative as they progressed. The drawings would grow and change, becoming less predictable and more exciting." He also urges pumpkin carvers to play with the translucent quality of just shaving off the initial rind of the pumpkin. "Think about how the light will make it come out," he says.

Gourddarnit! How to deal with mistakes. The disappointment of a mistake can bring down the festive spirit of the event, but don't give up too fast. Parker lends advice about going with the flow of the sculpting process. "When you're removing material, you can't really go back. You have to modify the design or alter the composition. The mistake becomes a part of what it becomes." But, hey, this sculpting challenge could teach the youngsters a valuable lesson. "Mistakes make you break away from preconceived ideas. It can be a good thing that forces you to be more creative," he says.

Otherwise, he says, "If it's too radical, just turn it around and do the other side."

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