How to Perfect Pysanky Eggs for Easter

The intricate Ukranian craft starts with the right egg.

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Pysanky eggs
Photo: Gail Lambka

Let's start with the word itself: Pysanky (plural form of pysanka) is from the Ukrainian word "pysaty" meaning "to write." Pysanky eggs are perfect for Easter and are hand-drawn creations—first in pencil using guidelines to section off an egg into a grid pattern, and then with detail within the grid. Afterward, pencil lines are covered with beeswax and layered with colors of dye, similar to the batik work done on fabric.

But the intricacy of the design is not the only thing that makes a pysanka beautiful. Even simple patterns can be just as striking as detailed ones. The key to a beautiful traditional pysanka is symmetry and precision (although symmetry does not always play a role in contemporary patterns). By precision, I mean that the design is drawn within a grid that has been laid out meticulously, usually with a tape measure. If a pysanka is only divided in half, each half will measure exactly the same. Similarly, in quadrants, each will measure exactly the same. The entire design, whether simple or detailed, depends on these first measurements to be exact. This is especially important if the egg will be very intricate.

Gail Lambka

Select the Egg

First and foremost, you should consider the quality of the egg chosen. The shells should be smooth and without cracks, and there should be no "transparent" spots when held up to a light source—these spots can signify a weak shell. The best place to buy eggs is from a backyard farmer or at a farmers market. These eggs come from birds that have been fed the proper diet ensuring quality eggshells.

At this point, the egg may be left whole—following old tradition—or hollowed out before creation. The danger of using a whole egg is that during decomposition of the inside, gasses may build up and the egg may burst. This not only ruins your pysanka and all your hard work, but it doesn't smell very good either.

For our purpose, we consider an emptied chicken egg as our template. Plug the hole in the egg with a bit of beeswax, so the dye will not enter when it is dunked. Use Ivory or Dawn dish soap to clean eggs—they are gentle cleansers.

kistka for Pysanky eggs
Gail Lambka

Create the Design

Once the grid and basic pattern of the egg is penciled in, you want to cover the area of the egg you want to stay white (assuming you are working with a white chicken egg). The traditional designer tool used in this step is called a kistka. Your kistka is like a heated fountain pen. The "ink" is the melted beeswax that flows from the kistka.

Kistky (plural) come in many styles. Manual kistky must be heated over a candle flame then dipped onto a pat of hard beeswax. The wax, which turns black from the carbon in the flame, melts, and flows up into the kistka. As you draw, a line of beeswax is released onto the egg. Only use pure beeswax: The melting point is such that you can handle it, yet it melts easily and will not rub off the egg as you work. I still have the original kistka my grandfather made for my grandmother when they emigrated to the United States from the Ukraine.

An electric kistka is continuously heated and is loved by artists that have created many, many pysanky. It uses blackened beeswax because there is no flame carbon to blacken the wax naturally. It is also more expensive, about 10 times as much as a manual kistka. Each type has various size tips letting the artist create extra fine to heavy lines.

Whichever type of kistka you use, just remember: It is not the kistka that creates a beautiful pysanka. The outcome depends more on your planning and precision of design. When you draw with the kistka, draw the line away from you, not towards you. Many pysanka artists rotate the egg instead of moving the kistka. This takes practice, but works really well.

Dye the Egg

Once you apply beeswax to an area, it will seal in the color underneath. Therefore, the beginning lines you draw on a white egg will stay white through the entire process. Each time an egg is dyed anew and more beeswax is added to that color, the new color is sealed. With this manner of dyeing and waxing, you are able to build a pattern.

There are many different dyes on the market from stores stocking pysanky supplies. The most popular stores sell inexpensive chemical alanine dyes that are used for batik and in the coloring of wool and silk. Please be aware they are not edible dyes, so do not use them on your regular hard-boiled eggs for Easter. Dyes are often diluted with hot water and vinegar or granular citric acid, which is added for potency. Be sure to check the directions on your dye packets: A few colors, like pink and orange, may not need a vinegar boost.

Dyeing eggs is a learning process. Vibrant colors may be achieved on one egg, while another looks dull. Shells take dye at different rates, and there are tricks of the trade that you will learn over time. Even the act of dyeing an empty egg that keeps bobbing up to the surface can be frustrating. I suggest using plastic baggies to hold the egg under the dye (it will dye right in the bag). You can store your dye in them, but make sure to seal them well! Some dye can be washed completely off, but some will not wash off at all. An extra jar of orange dye can be used as a "wash." Orange is the only color that will allow you to change the color palette without having to etch or bleach the egg.

The best routine for a beginner is to start with the lightest color and work toward the darkest. Yellow, orange, red, and black are tried and true colors that have been used since pysanky were first made. If you'd like a bit of green or blue, use a paintbrush to spot the color on the egg prior to dipping it in yellow, then cover with wax.


Remove the Wax

When your design is complete, your egg will be covered with wax and your design will be hard to see, making this step tricky. There are several methods to remove the wax. One effective way is to heat the egg next to, but not over, an open flame and wipe the wax off with a soft cloth as it melts. This can also be accomplished in a warm oven, toaster oven, or with a hairdryer on high setting. The only challenge with this technique is that is it very time-consuming and, if you are not careful with the open flame, you will get carbon streaks (that don't come off of the egg you worked very hard to complete).

My preferred method is using a "pan scraper"—rectangular plastic disks you can buy to scrape down your pots and pans after cooking. After warming the egg with your hands to soften the wax, you can gently scrape most of it away with the scraper. What is left can be removed with a cotton Q-tip or a cotton ball dipped in either mineral spirits or lighter fluid, then wiped with a soft cloth. Again, care must be taken when using these products, and the cotton must be disposed of as it will remain flammable.

Once the wax has been removed, you can seal the egg with a UV-resistant Polytheurane spray like Krylon. This will give it a nice sheen without being shiny. Or, you can put several coats of Varathane Diamond Wood varnish for a crystal clear shine (but do not choose the water-based variety).

Pysanky eggs
Gail Lambka

Be proud of all your pysanka—many people will ogle your designs even if all you see the mistakes.

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