From spray paints to acrylics, experts weigh-in on the top tints to use.  

By Blythe Copeland
October 21, 2020
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Carving pumpkins may be a traditional Halloween activity, but trading your X-Acto knife for a paintbrush has its benefits: Painting pumpkins is easier and safer for young kids, presents more design freedom for adults, and leaves you with an autumnal decoration that lasts until you trade your fall décor for holiday lights. "When we carve pumpkins, if we get a week out of it, that's pretty good—but a painted pumpkin can last months," says Marc Evan, founder and co-owner at Maniac Pumpkin Carvers. "A carving is going to rot in as soon as three days, sometimes even quicker. The nice thing about a painted pumpkin is it could theoretically last the entire season and look great through Halloween."

But choosing the best paint to use when decorating your pumpkin matters. Some are too translucent while others are too oily, taking them longer to dry. Here, two experts convey the best paints for decorating pumpkins so you can have a festive final product.

white pumpkin with painted leaves in red yellow light and dark blue
Credit: Yasu+Junko

Picking a Pumpkin to Paint

The first step in designing a painted pumpkin is looking carefully at its shape. "Painting a rounded surface is a little more difficult than a flat surface like canvas," says Becki Thomas, art manager at Painting with a Twist. "Try and choose a pumpkin with the smoothest surface possible, and plan your design keeping the pumpkin's natural ridges in mind." Next, clean your pumpkin so that the paint will stick to the surface. "It's a good idea to wash the pumpkin pretty good and dry it really well," Evan says. "That way you're not putting paint on a fine layer of dirt—you're putting paint right on the skin of the pumpkin."

Use Acrylic Paints for General Decorating

"I love to paint pumpkins with chalky acrylic paint ($1.99, michaels.com)," says Roma Stiff, senior creative project designer for Michaels. "The coverage is good, and the matte finish gives an updated home décor look and feel. The paint comes in a variety of home décor colors and is...just enough to do a project!"

Thomas agrees and recommends acrylic paint instead of oil-based when painting pumpkins. "It's quick-drying, easy to use, and clean-up is a breeze," she says. "Because acrylic is water-based, if you mess up, you can wipe it off with a rag and start over! Oil-based paint takes a long time to dry and can be fumy. You'll also need paint thinner to clean the paintbrushes." Most acrylic craft paints will require more than one coat to prevent the bright orange of the pumpkin rind from showing through, but acrylic's fast-drying properties—and low cost—let you layer several applications for solid coverage in the shortest amount of time. "It'll work for big shapes and tiny stencils," says Thomas. "Have a few different brush sizes ready to go ($16.43, amazon.com), and you'll be able to paint anything with acrylic." One caution, per Thomas: "It does stain clothing, so make sure to wear an apron or an old shirt and to protect the table you're painting on."

Utilize Spray Paint for All-Over Color

To turn your bold pumpkin into a cheery sun, white ghost, or pale yellow decorative centerpiece, you'll want to start with multiple coats of all-over color. "Spray paint will be the most durable and get you the quickest full-coverage—spray paint will get you a full coat of paint in a matter of seconds," says Thomas. "However, make sure to mask off any areas you don't want painted." Evan uses spray paint to create collections of pumpkins in different shades of the same color, to paint the stems of the pumpkins in contrasting shades, and to set a base coat for more detailed work. He recommends Montana Gold spray paint ($10.75, amazon.com). "Spray paint is something that is really versatile," he says. "It works amazing, especially for solid colors and decorative work."

Consider Paint Markers for Detail

Creating intricate patterns—like curlicues, faces, or script lettering—is easier with paint than with a knife, and paint pens or markers are some of the easiest ways to add thoughtful design elements to your finished product. "When we're painting more specific imagery on a pumpkin, the acrylic-based paint markers are phenomenal," says Evan; he likes brands including Montana, Molotow ($8.52 amazon.com), and Krink. "They dry quickly and adhere really well to the skin of the pumpkin." Thomas also recommends paint pens for complex images. "You can create clean, crisp lines with the pens and do some nice detail work," says Thomas. "They are great for small designs and painting facial features. Another option would be to paint the whole pumpkin white with acrylic paint and then use paint pens for designs and detail work. Adorable!"

Opt for Chalkboard Paint

If you want your pumpkin to stand out from all your neighbors' carved or painted efforts, Thomas recommends using chalkboard paint—which gives your gourd a sophisticated matte finish—and decorating it with chalk or adding puffy paint to create a three-dimensional design. "If you're feeling really brave," she says, "you can paint your pumpkin, let it dry, and then add glue and glitter!"

Kid-Friendly Washable Options

Getting the whole family involved at a pumpkin painting party might inspire you to use washable paint—but that has its pros (easier cleanup) and cons (it's thinner, so it requires more coats). Washable paint pens are a good minimal mess option for kids' use and an easy way to add smaller details to one's design. Stiff suggests Crayola Washable Paint Brush Pens ($6.39, michaels.com).

Or you can create your own washable mixture to use to paint your pumpkins this season. "In order for the paint to be durable and not to flake off after drying, you'll have to mix it with some Elmer's glue ($4.14, amazon.com)—about 50/50," says Thomas. "I know my kids don't want to wait around for this added step, so I would still recommend acrylic for the kids.  Just make sure they are wearing an old shirt and your painting surface is covered with newspaper because acrylic can stain clothing.

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