Pumpkin Carving TIPS
from a Facial Expression Expert
Key Concept: Pumpkins are not as smart as they look. You wield the knife with savvy and you'll get spectacular Jack-O'-Lantern faces.
And, since most of us tend to underestimate just how subtle and effective simplified faces can be, checking out the array of carved pumpkins on holiday display can be quite educational. In this blog I examine three of the six Cardinal Expressions – Joy, Sadness & Anger – including why some faces work much better than others, and offer tips for your upcoming Halloween pumpkin carving project.
JOY #1: Smiling Pumpkins
The eyes are also a factor. Figure 2 has crossed-eyes. Without any obvious eye-widening or reshaping, the eyes send a fuzzy message of a confused pumpkin. Figure 3 has a much smaller iris, making the eyes seem wider, and it is carved with a taut (straight) lower lid – always a boost to the expression of joy. The upwards directed gaze is also much more appealing. Our happier pumpkin looks amused by something in its surroundings.
The Iris Matters
It’s possible to create an expressive face on a pumpkin with simply an eye opening and no iris. But with a wide, triangular shaped eye shape, as in my test results below (Figure 4), the message is highly ambiguous, since the missing iris could be of any size, or in any position within the eye opening, and every variation has a different effect. When I added a small iris, at the very bottom of the opening, the pumpkin appears as a surprised) eye with a tight lower edge, and thus creates the look of the eager smile, like a typical Disney character, or any of hundreds of other wide-eyed cartoon creations.
Laughter is part of the group of facial expressions which are always accompanied by intense eye squinting, which also includes sneezing, coughing, and no-holds-barred crying (see below). To get the laugh right, the mouth needs to stretched sideways and dropped open, along with a set of obviously squinting eyes. With a simplified face like a pumpkin, that's easy to do - a slant-sided trapezoid with an arched upper edge serves nicely for the mouth, and a narrow, upwards-curved arc gets the job done with the eyes. And although the pumpkin in Fig. 6 has a much less effective mouth carving - the dip in the upper lip contradicts the necessary sense of stretching, and the overall shape is too narrow - it still gets the message across. Fig. 7 is much better; Fig. 6 seems like the laugh of a very old man with a bit of muscle impairment.
The “evil smile,” a combination of the angry scowl and the happy smile, is a mainstay of pumpkin expressions, and for good reason – it’s a universal, instantly readable face of malignancy combined with sinister pleasure. The blade-like teeth add to the nasty effect.
In Figure 10, the “Excellent” pumpkin carving does several things well. The mouth (clearly illustrated in the drawing) arcs much more radically upwards, making it look happier. More unusually, the artist has created a deeply curved brow mass, which is often used in animated characters as a replacement for eyebrows. The green arrows mark the point of intersection where the central brow mass overlaps and covers the slanted upper eyelid, which up until that point matches the upper eyelid of the “Adequate” version. The sudden change of eyelid direction is a very effective way to indicate an intensely frowning brow, and is why the eye looks much more sinister than in Figure 9. Both Spiderman's and Iron Man's masks could benefit from a similar eye treatment.
SAD - Crying Pumpkins
Mr. Anxiety meets Ms. Crazy
Mr. Anxiety, on the left, has the correct radical sideways stretching in his rectangular mouth, and his lower teeth are completely exposed, as they always are in a fearful mouth. His eyes are spectacularly widened and looking AT something, which helps him look terrified. By contrast, the fully exposed, clenched teeth of Ms. Crazy, on the right, combined with her extra-opened eyes, creates the impression of an expression that is on overdrive - energetic, naive and a bit crazed – something that’s definitely worrying her friend. Is he onto something?