Working Pictures: “Pumpkin Self-carve”

Great pictures work because they are designed to work. They don’t just happen by luck or by accident. In this Working Pictures series, elements and decisions of picture design are closely examined to better understand how images are made to “work.” 

Case in Point: Charles Addam’s “Pumpkin Self-Carve”



Charles Samuel Addams (1/7/12–9/29/88) was an American cartoonist known for his particularly black humor and macabre characters. Some of the recurring characters, who became known as The Addams Family, became the basis for two live-action television series, two cartoon series, and many motion pictures. He drew more than 1,300 cartoons over the course of his life. Those that didn’t appear in The New Yorker were often in Collier’s andTV Guide. In 1961, Addams received, from the Mystery Writers of America, a Special Edgar Award for his body of work. His cartoons appeared in books, calendars and other merchandising.


Addams studied at Colgate University and at the University of Pennsylvania where a fine-arts building on campus is named for him. In front of the building is a sculpture of the silhouettes of Addams family characters. He also studied at Grand Central School of Art in New York City. In 1932 he joined the layout department of True Detective magazine where he had to retouch photos of corpses that appeared in the magazine’s stories to remove the blood from them. Addams complained that “A lot of those corpses were more interesting the way they were”. The job taught him magazine work and the use of wash technique.
Addams was “sociable and debonair”, and described by a biographer as “A well-dressed, courtly man with silvery back-combed hair and a gentle manner, he bore no resemblance to a fiend.” Figuratively a ladykiller, Addams squired celebrities such as Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine and Jacqueline Kennedy on social occasions. He also collected crossbows that he kept on the wall of his study.
He married his third and last wife, Marilyn Matthews Miller, in a pet cemetery; he wore sunglasses during the ceremony. In 1985, the Addamses moved to Sagaponack, New York, where they named their estate “The Swamp”. -Wikipedia


Wisely chosen concepts wedded to artful images make for memorable and effective pictures. The communication success of an image is the result of the decisions made regarding these factors.  

1. Concepts  

-Subtlety.  A strength of this picture is that it looks innocent at first glance.  It turns a conventional autumnal scene on its head by adding a small, surprising, creepy element… the carving of one pumpkin from the inside out!  The idea however, is very small in the picture, and very quiet too. 

-Wonder.  “Wondrous Strange” was the theme and title of an important exhibition of works by the Wyeths (N.C., Andrew and Jamie) and Howard Pyle (N.C.’s mentor).  The term was used to describe a quality of mystery the artists aimed for in their images.  This picture by Charles Addams could certainly be described as “wondrous strange” too.  The image not only amuses us, but provokes us.  It asks us questions and gives us no answers.  What is going on here? Who’s in that pumpkin? How could they fit in there? And how could that knife get in there?  This picture fills us with suspense as well, which is essentially a heightened form of wonder.   

-Connections.  Misplacement is a common tool for the illustrator.  Putting something where it doesn’t belong calls attention from the viewer.  The most effective misplacements for communication purposes are not random, they are associative.  They build on pre-existing understandings.  They connect things that are aleady in our minds. There are many things that would be unusual to place in that pumpkin patch, like, a martian, or a armchair or a penguin.  But, we know that pumpins are carved with knives, so combining  pumpkin carving with pumpkin growing makes this image, even as strange as it is… natural.  The two pieces of pumpkin knowledge, are combined for the first time, or in a new way, and form one seemlessly connected visual concept.


2. Style. 

-This concept could actually be considered of the “horror” genre, but this picture is not created in a horror style (usually, high contrast, ultra-realism).  Instead, this painting has the sweet, cartoony feel of a humor piece or children’s book image, featuring simplified forms and gentle watercolor washes.  This mix of style and substance makes for a rich viewer experience and is common in the dark humor of Charles Addam’s artwork.   

These are just a few of the elements that make this picture work. Future “Working Pictures” entries will explore successful pictures and their reasons for being so. 

Further Observation 

Another classic Charles Addams cartoon with a less creepy concept:



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