How To Make Pysanky, the Ultimate Easter Eggs
A few years ago, a friend asked if I wanted to get together to decorate Easter eggs. But she wasn't talking about using the familiar dye kits we grew up with. Instead, she introduced me to Ukrainian Easter eggs called pysanky, a form of folk art dating back to the 1st century A.D.
The word "pysanky" derives from the Ukrainian "pysaty," which means "to write" or "to inscribe." Looking at a pysanka (singular), you'll see why. The eggs are covered with hand-drawn designs — some are religious motifs and some are patterns from nature — that range from simple to painstakingly intricate. The art of making pysanky is traditionally handed down from generation to generation as women and girls gather to decorate dozens of eggs before Easter.
Making pysanky involves a multi-layered wax and dye process (think batik) that results in non-edible Easter eggs that you can keep forever. Google "pysanky" and you'll find endless examples of traditional patterns for these amazing eggs, but not being Ukrainian ourselves, we felt free to borrow the technique but use our own designs.
To honor the ancient tradition of passing along the craft from hand to hand, I recently got a couple of other friends together to teach them how to make pysanky. Follow along and I'll show you, too!
Meet Gina Tolentino, a painter and illustrator who co-owns Seattle's popular Bar del Corso, and Dana Neely, a photographer and the smokin' genius behind Girls Gone BBQ. This was their first time making pysanky, and if they can do it, you can.
What You Need to Make Ukrainian Easter Eggs
First, you'll need a few special tools and dyes. I recommend you buy an inexpensive kit that includes all the basics:
- 3 sizes (thin, medium, thick) of kistka, a stylus with a small reservoir and funnel, used to hold and apply melted beeswax onto eggs
- Powdered dyes (must be Ukrainian Easter egg dye)
- Beeswax (no other wax will do)
A pysanky kit usually comes with a booklet showing various designs with step-by-step instructions for drawing, waxing, and dyeing — very helpful for beginners and pros alike.
You'll also need some household items:
- Raw eggs, the smoother the shell, the better the working surface
- Lidded glass jars to hold the prepared dyes
- White vinegar for making dyes and prewashing eggs
- Newspaper to protect your workspace from the dye
- Blank paper for dabbing wax from the kistka funnel
- Candles for heating the kistka and melting wax (a taller candle stub works better than a tea light)
- Spoons for dipping eggs
- Paper towels for drying (you'll need lots)
- Soft tissues for wiping melted beeswax off eggs
- Small soft towel for cradling the egg so it won't roll away
- Paint thinner to wipe soot and pencil marks off the eggs before varnishing
To preserve your beautiful eggs for posterity, you'll need:
- Spray varnish (not water-soluble)
- Drying board (a 1-inch grid of thin nails on a small board works well)
- Egg blower
How to Make Pysanky
Wash eggs in a solution of 1-quart tepid water and 1 tablespoon of white vinegar. Make sure eggs are completely dry and at room temperature before drawing and waxing. While eggs are drying, you can make up the dyes, following package directions.
1. Lightly pencil a design on a washed and dried, uncooked white egg. Don't erase mistakes; just keep going.
2. Heat the bowl of the kitska over a candle, use it to scoop up a little beeswax, heat the kitska again, and draw melted beeswax on the parts of the design that should stay white. In the photo below, Dana is applying wax over the designs in the egg that she wants to stay white when she dyes the egg.
Tip: To heat, hold the kitska near but not in the flame. Before you start to wax the egg, touch the bottom of the heated kitska on a sheet of paper to pull out excess hot wax that would otherwise run out and blot your egg. Make it a habit to do this each time you apply wax to the egg. I learned this the hard way.
3. Using a spoon, gently dip the waxed egg in the lightest dye color in your design. You might have to leave the egg in for several minutes until the color is as deep as you want. Lift out the egg and pat dry with a paper towel. Do not rub.
Tip: You'll go through lots of paper towels. I cut mine into small squares so I can get maximum usage from one sheet.
4. Wax the parts of the design that should retain the dye color you just used. For example, the egg below was dipped in pink dye. Gina then applied wax over the parts that should stay pink when she dyes the egg in the next color.
5. Dip the egg in the next darker color and pat dry. Wax areas as needed. Repeat until you dye the final color. Here's how Gina created her kitten design:
- Gina outlined the white design with wax.
- Next, she dipped the egg in pink dye and used wax to cover the areas she wanted to stay pink.
- Then, she dipped the egg in blue dye and covered the areas that should stay blue.
- Finally, she dipped the egg in black dye.
Tip: Always work from the lightest colors to the darkest.
6. When all the waxing and dyeing is done, you'll melt the wax off the egg to reveal the design.
- Working with a small area of the egg at a time, hold it close enough to the flame to warm and melt the wax. Don't hold the egg directly in the flame. Use a tissue to wipe off the melted wax.
- Repeat this all around the egg, warming a small area and wiping off the wax.
- Dampen a tissue with a tiny amount of paint thinner and gently wipe the egg to remove soot.
7. Admire your egg!
To preserve this masterpiece, I sprayed two coats of varnish on the eggs and let them dry completely. Then I carefully drilled a tiny hole in the top and the bottom ends of the egg and used an egg blower to extrude the white and yolk out of the egg. This was the most nerve-wracking part because I've been known to crack an egg after all that work. It's not pretty.
Properly stored, pysanky can last for ages and be handed down as heirlooms. I keep mine in clean, dry egg cartons.
Google pysanky and you'll find loads of websites and videos with detailed instructions and designs. My advice: Start with something simple and learn as you go. You can make gorgeous designs with just wax and one dye color. Once you get the technique down, you can graduate to more elaborate multi-colored patterns.
I hope you'll give making pysanky eggs a try, and share your new craft with a friend.
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