My family—wife Gina, daughters Zoe and Lucy—and I are big fans of Halloween. We love decorating the house so much that my neighbors have taken to calling me the Clark Griswold of Halloween. But here's the story: while we put in effort, we don't have much free time to transform the house for All Hallow's Eve. What family does? As an artist and a dad, I've come up with a few simple steps to make our place a destination for trick-or-treaters and, in the process, create some outstanding memories for my family.
When I go to the pumpkin patch with my family, I don't just look for the perfect, most orange pumpkin. I look for pumpkins and gourds that already have personality. I encourage my girls to look at some of the oddly shaped gourds and ask them what kind of character they see. Is there a sad, scary, or happy face there? Don't choose the pumpkins, let the pumpkins choose you!
Since we like to decorate in early October, we found that our jack-o'-lanterns were looking pretty rough by October 31. So instead of carving early in the season, we paint faces on one side of the pumpkins; then, as we get a couple of days away from Halloween, we carve the other side for the big night.
Painting pumpkins is our go-to method of decorating. Not only is it more convenient, but it's also much safer (no sharp implements!) and empowering for our kids. We use acrylic paints because they fare much better in the rain. Tip: Have kids wear smocks, since acrylic paints can stain.
Jarrett uses disposable paper palette pads (available at art stores) for mixing paints, but paper plates work well, too.
One of my family's favorite creations was this pug pumpkin, or pugkin, a Halloween version of our dog, Ralph. To attach the eyes and ears, we made holes in each gourd with a hammer and nail and used pieces of wire coat hanger to join them (an adult's job). My daughter Zoe suggested we give it a tongue. We painted a leftover piece of pumpkin red and placed it in the mouth. The perfect finishing touch!
Lining the driveway with large pumpkins can get expensive, so we buy a dozen or so sugar pumpkins. These small squashes cost much less, plus painting them all fills up the kids' time. To give them more character, we cut slits for their mouths (an idea that came about one year when we didn't have time to carve full pumpkins). The little fellows end up looking fantastically creepy. We paint the interior of the mouths dark brown to give them extra depth.
I studied illustration at Rhode Island School of Design, and the most important classes I took were in painting and color theory. Not only do I apply that knowledge to my illustrations, but my family also uses those tips when we paint our Halloween pumpkins. While you and your kids can use basic colors, I've found the following combinations work particularly well with the complexion of a pumpkin.
1. Mix ultramarine blue with burnt umber to get a great black. In art school we were taught never to use black from a tube. It kills the color of a piece.
2. Mix cadmium yellow medium with Naples yellow to get a nice highlight color. You can use this for the highlight above an eyebrow or above a lip.
3. Mix cadmium red medium with cadmium orange to give a pumpkin rosy cheeks. You breathe life into a character when you apply a reddish hue to their cheeks, nose, or ears—it creates the illusion that there is blood pumping underneath the skin.
4. Mix burnt sienna with cadmium red medium and apply it underneath the eyebrows or below the bottom lip to give the sense of a shadow on the pumpkin's skin. Or if you want a haggard-looking pumpkin, smudge it beneath its eyes. Spooky!
When we set the pumpkins in front of the house, we use white holiday lights. Not only are they safer than candles, the glow is nice and bright and you can be assured that your jack-o'-lanterns will shine throughout the night. I carve out a square on the opposite side of the face to insert the lights. Group your pumpkins close together so you can string the lights from one jack-o'-lantern to the next. When I break out my outdoor extension cord and plug in the lights, it truly is my Clark Griswold moment.
Art isn't always permanent. When November arrives, you'll be left with all of these wonderful pumpkin faces. But the fun doesn't need to end there. If you are able to compost the pumpkins in your backyard, place them face up and revisit them every few weeks. I guarantee they will look far creepier in January!
Jarrett J. Krosoczka is the author and illustrator of 25 children's books, including The Lunch Lady and the Platypus Police Squad series.