furball Have you ever seen those really cool pumpkin carvings that look like photographs?  Yeah, me too.  I wondered to myself, aloud, while alone in my office, “How do they do that?”  It came to me that, of course, they must first start with a photograph.  I reasoned from there that, naturally, they must convert the photo into a two tone image, as the pumpkin carving will be composed of only two “colors” (either pumpkin or not pumpkin).  Well, from there, I knew just what to do.  Read on, and so will you!








1. First, we need a photograph.  I’ve chosen one of my cat, Furball.  He’s a black kitty (mostly).  Perfect for Halloween!  Load it into ol’ Photoshop (I’m using CS4, but any recent version should work; we’re not doing anything that fancy).



2.  Next, crop the image down to only what you want to carve.  For me, that means Furball’s face.  Naturally, if you don’t need to crop, skip this step.  I recommend you get it as close to a square as possible.  Something too tall or too wide will not translate well to your pumpkin.  The Crop tool is shown selected below, on the left side toolbar.



3.  You’ll next want to resize the image.  Something close to 600 pixels by 600 pixels is best.  If you made your picture square-ish, then changing either value (width or height) to 600 should be fine.  When you’ve set the resolution where you need it, take a note of the exact numbers; you’ll need them later.

Note: If you leave your image at a high resolution, Illustrator will pick up too many details later.  There’s a way to fix that, but it’s easier to do this now.  Don’t worry about losing resolution; your final product will be a vector, which cannot be pixelated.




4.  Once you’ve resized the image, you’ll want to clean it up.  Select the Eraser tool from the toolbar, and set your brush size to something fairly large.  Before starting, be sure to set your background color to white.  Do this by selecting the lower of the two boxes in the color window in the right pane.  In the example below, you’ll see that it is currently white and below the foreground box, which is black.



5.  Now, go ahead and erase everything that you don’t want to carve.  For me, that’s everything but Furball’s face.  You don’t have to be very precise; this process will discard a lot of detail in the end, anyway.



6.  Once you’ve cleaned up everything you don’t want, you’ll need to adjust the Brightness and Contrast.  Find this setting under the “Image > Adjustments” menu.  Here you’ll have to use your judgement, but the idea is to get as high a contrast and brightness as possible without losing any of the details.  You may need to repeat this step to get it just right.  Also, don’t worry if it looks ugly right now; that won’t matter later.




7.  Now it’s time to open up Illustrator.  Again, I’m using CS4, but you should be fine if you’re using any recent version.  From the File menu, create a New Document.  You’ll need to set the image resolution.  Use the numbers you saved from Step 3.



8.  Now, go back into Photoshop.  Select the entire image, using the Rectangular Select tool, shown active below.  Copy the selection to the clipboard, either by pressing Ctrl+C or choosing Copy from the Edit menu.



9.  Returning to Illustrator, paste the image into the document by pressing Ctrl+V or choosing Paste from the Edit menu.  If you have scrolled such that the document is no longer centered in the window, you may need to use the Selection tool (shown active below) to drag the image into center.  Since the selection and document are the same size, it should snap into place very easily.

Note: Be sure not to de-select the image when you’re done.  It should remain outlined in blue.  If it is not, simply click on it with your Selection tool.



10.  Okay, now it’s time for the magic.  Open the Object menu.  Go to “Object > Live Trace > Make”.



11.  Whoa!  Check that out!  Isn’t it fabulous?!  No?  Oh.  Okay, well just keep reading.

This isn’t quite what we’re looking for.  But you should be able to see where we’re going now.  This image will serve as a reference, a guide.  It will help you see what areas need touching up.



12.  Returning to Photoshop (again), select your Brush tool*.  Be sure that your foreground color is black (as with your background in Step 4).  Choose a brush diameter that suits you from the Options menu at the top (set to 6 in the example below).

Now using your Illustrator image as a reference, trace and fill the areas that are too light to be picked up in Illustrator’s Live Trace mode.  In my example, I’ve also filled in Furball’s whiskers, which I cut out earlier.  You may have noticed that I left a lot of empty white space around Furball’s face earlier.  I did this because I knew I’d be drawing in the whiskers later.  I erased them earlier because I knew they wouldn’t show up in the Live Trace.  If you are using a picture of your cat, you may find that you need to do the same.

*Hint: Your Brush tool may be replaced with a pencil or a paintbrush with a little box beside it, depending on how it was last used.  If so, simply click and hold until a pop-out menu appears, from which you should select the regular paint brush image.




13.  Now, do the same, but with the color white.  You can change the foreground color again if you want, but I prefer to just use the Eraser tool, so that I can easily switch between it and the Brush for white and black details.  If you do use the Eraser too, be sure to change the brush size to something workable (we made it really big in Step 4).  This time you’re going to be filling in and tracing the details that were too dark in the first trace.



14.  When you think you’ve got it all, select the entire image again, and copy it.



15.  Return to Illustrator, and delete the old trace.  You should already have the object selected, so just press the Delete key.  If not, select it with the Selection tool and press Delete.

Paste the modified image from Photoshop (Ctrl+V).

Perform a Live Trace again, exactly as you did in Step 10.



16.  Voila!  You now have a perfect image!  Well, okay, maybe you don’t.  You’ll want to make sure that there aren’t any large sections of white surrounded by black (such as Furball’s left eye, below).  The white areas will be pumpkin, and the black areas will be “not pumpkin” (i.e. the area you cut out).  Unless you’re a witch, you can’t suspend a piece of pumpkin in mid-air.

So, repeat Steps 12 – 15 until you’ve got it just right*.  I’d suggest forgiving yourself some of the tinier pieces (such as directly below Furball’s left ear in the example below) with the knowledge that you’ll just ignore them when you go to work on your carving.  But, that’s up to you.

*If you want to see my finished product, just refer to the image at the beginning of this tutorial.



17.  When you’re satisfied with your product, print it.  Printing from Illustrator is about the same as printing from any other program.  Go to the File menu and choose “Print.”  I recommend you set your printer to print in grayscale or black-and-white mode, so that you don’t waste any color ink on this one.  It’s just not necessary.

How you use this on your pumpkin is up to you.  If you want to try and freehand it using this image as a guide, power to you, friend.  If not, tape it to the pumpkin, and use a pin or very small nail to create a dot-pattern outline, sort of like a “connect-the-dots” picture for you to trace, erring with the dots inside the black region (since that is what you’ll be cutting out).  I don’t recommend trying to cut the pumpkin with the paper attached.  That’d be silly, and if you don’t understand why, just try it and see for yourself.