GL: What are the pumpkin sculptor's must-have tools? Do you have a "lucky knife" or any other favorite tools in your workshop?
RV: I try to keep the tools simple; just a few simple clay loop tools, ribbon loop tools, and a regular X-Acto knife and a small paring knife. People see these pumpkins and they think we must be using drills and all this elaborate stuff, but it's really simple tools. You don't even want the tools to be too sharp, because the pumpkin flesh carves very easily. If you have something too sharp, the tool tends to dive right into the pumpkin. I like to use tools that are not too sharp, that you can almost sketch with.
AB: People are often surprised that the tools I use for pumpkin carving are the same tools used for clay sculpting most of the time. I sometimes use a paring knife to cut large chunks out of pumpkin, but the majority of the tools I use are simply double-ended loop tools that you can find in the sculpture section of any craft supply store. We even have sets of our most commonly used tools available at VillafaneStudios.com, which include the tools that I use on just about every pumpkin I carve. I don't necessarily have a "lucky" tool or a favorite, but I definitely could not live without my trusty X-Acto knife.
GL: What's your work space like? Are there particular environmental factors to consider when you're working with a pumpkin—for instance, does your work space have to be a particular temperature?
RV: It would be ideal for the pumpkin if my work space was cold and wet. But I just moved from Michigan to Arizona because I've had it with the cold. I do most of my carvings indoors in my studio, which is climate-controlled, but as I'm working, I make sure that I'm misting the pumpkins with a spray bottle. I'm really after the photograph—that's the real end product—but if I need to save the sculpture for a client, I usually wrap it in paper towels, put it in a bag, and refrigerate it. You actually want to carve a pumpkin within about five hours. After that, the flesh and the pulp of the pumpkin start to break down and get spongy, and less ideal to carve.
AB: When I'm at home, my pumpkin-carving work space consists of my dining room table, much to the chagrin of my wife! There are certainly some environmental issues to consider when sculpting pumpkins. First and foremost is lighting. Because the flesh of a pumpkin is so translucent, it can be very difficult to carve in direct sunlight or any environment with too much ambient light. The light just wants to pass through the surface and makes it very hard to see shadows and forms as you work. The best-case scenario is to carve a pumpkin that is lit directly from above with a single controlled light source, like a large desk lamp. The other major factor to consider when carving a pumpkin is the mess! Sculpting pumpkins in this particular style often leaves a huge mess of pumpkin shavings to contend with, so always keep that in mind when preparing an area to carve in.
GL: Where do you get the pumpkins you work on? Do you have a favorite, go-to pumpkin source—a guy "on the inside" at a pumpkin farm nearby, perhaps?
RV: I just moved to Phoenix, and last year and this year I worked with growers in San Jose. The mid to northern California region is a great growing area—that's worth me driving out 12 hours to get the pumpkins. The pumpkin itself is incredibly important. But the events that we do often have the pumpkins there for us. I describe to them what I need; sometimes I have them shipped to the event.
We work with the GPC, the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, an organization for giant-pumpkin growers, and they're working with us to develop pumpkins that are thicker for carving. Every year their giant pumpkins are getting bigger and bigger. Hopefully within the next several years they'll end up having a variety of pumpkins for us that are even thicker, so we'll be able to pull even more depth out of the pumpkin.
AB: I've had great experiences with pumpkins from all over the country, but some of the best I've ever used have been from Craig Underwood of Underwood Family Farms in Moorpark, California. I live close to this farm and they have been an excellent source for Ray and myself, and have even helped me out of a few "pumpkin emergencies" on occasion.
GL: You are both well respected for your perfectionism. Have you ever tried a pumpkin design that you just couldn't get right?
RV: Because of the nature of this unpredictable material, we've both had a lot of pumpkins that didn't work. I've had many pumpkins that I started that went into the trash, or the pumpkin was too stringy, or I broke through [into the center] and had to start over with a new pumpkin. When people come up to me and tell me, "Oh, I tried this design and I broke through and it didn't work," I always tell them the same thing happens to me all the time. We have maybe more hours of experience with it, doing what we do, but we almost have to approach it each time like a novice sculptor would.