I have been meaning to write a blog post about Pysanky for years! This post is quite out of season, but I hope to use it for future years and future events.
Before we got married, Stan hosted an annual Pysanky art workshop. We continued this tradition together with friends and with our own children. This year’s workshop was part of a homeschool geography co-op that we are involved in.
Stan and I both have an attraction to Ukraine and Russia and the culture. Stan lived in Voronezh, Russia for a year teaching English to kids and I love the hardiness of the people. Pysanky fits in with beekeeping and our lives in general because we use homemade beeswax candles to create designs on the eggs (which we also raise ourselves).
Making Pysanky happens in a series of adding wax and dye to create a design on the egg. Here is a quick overview of the process. It can be tricky to think backwards for resistance dying.
This egg started out cream-colored. We added a wax star, then dyed it yellow.
After that, we added more wax, then dyed the egg green. Once we removed the wax, it looked like this.
HOLLOWING THE EGG
For us, the first step in making pysanky is to hollow the egg. Traditionally, Ukrainians did not hollow the eggs. Eggs will naturally dry out, but the process is long and stinky. We like to skip that part.
To hollow the egg, we use a dremel tool to make a small hole (about 3-5 mm) on the point of the egg. The point of the egg will face down. (This is the best way to store eating eggs as well, BTW.) Another way to make a hole is to tap the tip of a pocket knife repeatedly on the point of the egg until it makes a small hole. This takes practice, but works splendidly.
Use a syringe or egg blower to put air into the egg. Do this over a bowl. With the syringe, fill it with air, put the tip of the needle into the egg, and “squirt” the air into the egg. With the egg blower, blow air into the egg with your mouth. Adding air will increase pressure in the egg, and the egg liquids will squirt out the hole into the bowl. Repeat until the egg is empty. Then squirt some water into the egg and shake it around a bit to rinse the inside of the egg. Blow out the water. Rinsing will help avoid some of the egg smell later.
Next, you will need to seal the hole with wax. If not, you will get dye in the egg and egg in the dye. The dye can last for years unless it gets egg in it. (Eggs cause mold to grow.)
Sealing the hole is easiest using a kistka, or stylus (see below). Heat the tip of the kistka and use the cup part to scoop up some wax. Don’t blot it. Gently place the tip of the kistka inside the hole and pull it out. The wax on the outside of the stylus should make a bubble around the hole and seal it.
Below is the best photo I have with a wax plug. The plug has a small hole in it (which you don’t want), but it illustrates the plug it looks like.
This is a kistka, or stylus. It has a handle and a metal cup with a small hole at the bottom. A kistka is about the size of a pencil.
The hole in the bottom of the cup comes in fine, medium, and thick. This set shown has different colored handles for different sizes (top). The bottom set are ones Stan made himself. The very bottom one has a very wide opening, which we use to fill large areas with wax.
Pysanka artists heat the metal cup with the candle flame, scoop wax with the cup portion, blot excess wax on paper, then use the hole to draw on an egg. We cover the tables with butcher paper for blotting. Not blotting causes undesired drips of wax to form on the egg.
Some artists take wax directly from the candle and others use a separate block of wax for scooping.
Be cautious not to light the end of the kistka on fire. Beeswax is flammable and if the kistka gets too hot, it will burst into flame, melting the handle and ruining the kistka. If the kistka starts to smoke, it is too hot. Give some time for it to cool before holding it in the flame again.
Don’t rest the hot kistka on wax. The wax will cool around the kistka, sealing it in place. It is difficult to remove. We have broken at least one kistka this way.
PENCIL IN THE DESIGN
If you would like to sketch a design on the egg before using wax, lightly draw it in pencil onto the egg. Super dark pencil lines won’t come off. Most traditional designs start with a star. Below, our niece is drawing with a pencil on her egg.
Once the design is finished, start using a kistka to draw with wax on the egg in the areas you’d like to resist color. Wherever you put wax will have the base color of the egg. Then begin the process of dying, adding wax, and repeat as desired.
For little kids (under age 8), we encourage them to draw on the egg with wax for a while, then dye their egg. Then fill in some of the scribbles with wax, then dye again. The egg pictured below uses this technique.
We order our egg dyes online from the Ukrainian Gift Shop. They come in powdered form. As mentioned above, the dyes can last for years. We mix the dyes according to the package instructions in mason jars. Once the party is over, we put the lids on the jars and store them until next year.
If we are using dyes saved from last year, we usually refresh them by adding a sprinkle of dye powder and some white vinegar.
It is a good idea to dye eggs starting with the lightest color and ending with the darkest color. Usually yellow is the dye that we replace the most because artists do not follow this rule.
The dyes are powerful and permanent. They will stain hands and clothing.
Dye will etch out a color already on the egg. For example, if you have a yellow egg and then place it in turquoise, the turquoise will etch out the yellow and make the exposed areas turquoise.
Be sure to dye from lightest color to darkest color to avoid muddying the dyes.
To dye a pysanky, place the sealed egg in the dye and submerge it with an egg dipper or spoon. Hold it under for a few seconds, then test the color. Repeat as long as desired. Dry the egg with a paper towel and continue adding wax.
If you see air bubbles coming up when the egg is submerged, remove it from the dye, drain it, dry it, and re-seal the wax seal. Then dye again.
Creating pysanky requires LOTS of paper towels. We use them to dry off excess dye and to remove wax from the egg. When people ask what they can bring to a pysanky workshop, I always answer, “Paper towels.”
REMOVING WAX FROM THE EGG
Removing the wax from the egg is my favorite part because it is when the design is revealed. Photo 1: Finished waxing and dying. Before wax is removed. Photo 2: After wax is removed. Beautiful!
To remove the wax from the egg, use the flame of the candle to heat the wax on the egg, then wipe it off with a paper towel. Use a clean part of paper towel for each wipe. Heat then wipe and repeat until all the thick, black wax is off. There will still be a residue layer of wax on the egg, which makes it shiny and pretty.
Remove the wax plug first. Otherwise, the egg can break from steam building up inside the egg. It is super sad when this happens so close to the end of the process!
When heating the wax with the candle flame, use the side of the flame like he is doing below. Don’t put the egg above the flame. When the egg is above the flame, it can accumulate black soot.
SHOULD I WEAR GLOVES?
Wearing gloves is a good idea. The dye is pretty intense and can stay on hands for several days. Also, sometimes the oils on our fingers can resist dye, causing some hazy-looking spots on the egg. Having said that, it is okay not to as well.
We have many pysanka photos from over the years and I thought you may enjoy seeing some of them. You may even see one of your own featured here!