A “pysanka” (plural: pysanky) is a traditional Ukrainian Easter egg and originates from the verb pysaty, which means “to write”. The designs are written on the eggs with beeswax. In this tutorial you’ll learn how to make your own pysanky by applying wax with a stylus tool called a “kistka” and dipping them in dyes of progressively darker shades. The final step is the most exciting, where you remove the wax to reveal the beautiful design.
- Eggs (preferably white).
- Beeswax candle.
- Food colouring or egg dyes.
- White vinegar.
- Saucepan for boiling the eggs.
- Bowl for cleaning the eggs.
- Bain-marie (double boiler) or a small pot.
- Small metallic container for melting the wax.
- Pencil with an attached eraser.
- Flat sewing pin.
- Little wooden stick.
- Plastic or glass cups.
- Kitchen paper towels.
- Cardboard, foil or baking paper.
- Latex gloves.
Step 1: Clean the Eggs
Fill the bowl with warm water and two tablespoons of vinegar. Place the eggs in the mixture for about five minutes. At this point you need to clean the eggshells from anything that might make it difficult for the dye to adhere to the surface. Remove and wipe with paper until dry.
If you are making your eggs for decoration, you need to remove the egg yolk. To do this, make a little hole at the bottom of the egg by slowly turning the eggshell in circular motions with a needle or pin.
One the hole is big enough to empty the contents of the egg, rinse with a generous amount of water and leave to dry completely.
If you intend to eat your eggs, just boil them for about 10 minutes, then wipe with a soft cloth and leave to dry.
Step 2: Make Your Tools
The original tool for making pysanky eggs is called a “kistka”. You can find two types of kistka. The first one looks like a conical funnel with a tiny hole in the tip. The wax is poured through the top opening and comes out through the tip in fine lines.
The other type of kitska looks like a pin on a handle and it is used to carry drops of wax on to the shell and make lines. For this tutorial, I’ve fashioned my own tool with common objects found around the house.
Use a hammer to attach a nail on to the end of a straight wooden stick. Then take a pin and push it into the eraser at the end of a pencil. Now you have a tool for normal lines and fills and one for the finer lines.
Step 3: Prepare the Dyes
Since I’m using boiled eggs that are going to be consumed, I used non-toxic dyes. I’ve used food colouring but you can also use Easter egg dyes. For decorative eggs you might want to use batik dyes for permanent colour and brighter shades.
Arrange your plastic cups on a tray lined with paper towel, as this process can get messy. Pour about 20ml of dye in a cup and add water until it reaches the halfway mark. Repeat for as many colours as you like. You can mix them together and create different tints. Just remember that you need to have a selection from really light to dark colours.
It would be a good idea experiment with the dyes on a couple of eggs to check the density of colour before marking your design.
Once you’re happy with your shades, add a tablespoon of white vinegar in each cup. Eggshells are made primarily of calcium carbonate. The acid in vinegar softens the calcium of the eggshell and stabilizes the dye in the pores.
Step 4: Draw Your Design on the Egg
You can create any design you can like for your pysanky, although traditional versions mostly feature geometrical shapes and absolute symmetry. It’s a good idea to begin with a very simple geometric design.
Use your pencil to draw on the egg, starting from the top. Draw a long triangle (as pictured below) and repeat around the egg. Then move to the bottom part and repeat the design. Fill in the centre and any empty spaces with triangles, ensuring you leave at least 3mm between the lines.
Step 5: Melt the Wax
Beeswax is the best to use for this procedure. It is a soft wax and will cling to the egg – and best of all it smells like honey! Paraffin wax may peel during the dips and ruin your design. Just keep in mind that beeswax burns out very quickly! Use a piece of cardboard, foil or baking paper to keep your working area safe.
There are two ways to melt the wax. You can use special wax melters or bain-maries. Fill three-quarters of a small pot with water and let it reach boiling point. Cut pieces of wax (without the wick) and place them in a small metallic container. Place the container on the surface of the boiling water, taking care not to let any water into the wax. It will slowly start to melt. You can use it until it becomes solid, when you’ll need to heat it again.
The other method is to light a beeswax candle and use the melted wax directly. This is actually better because it maintains the correct melting temperature for a long time. Just remember to place it in an appropriate container so the wax doesn’t drip everywhere.
Step 6: Write in Wax
Using the thin line tool (pin-headed pencil), dip the end of the pin in to the melted wax. Stay on the surface of the liquid. Take a drop of it and carefully place it on the eggshell. Pull softly along the lines as though you were painting with a brush.
You have to work fast as it will cool in seconds. You might want to practice this technique on ‘practice’ egg. Once you feel confident with drawing with wax, go over all the lines of the design on your egg.
Step 7: Dip Into Dye
Now place the egg on the desert spoon and dip it in the cup with the lightest shade of dye (mine is yellow). Leave for about two to three minutes and then remove. If it looks like the dye didn’t take, put it back and leave for three more minutes.
Remember that the best eggs for dyeing are white ones. They may be a bit difficult to find but you can use a lighter beige egg as well. If your shell is emptied, close the bottom hole with some wax to avoid the dye getting in. Use the spoon to keep it under the dye for the duration required.
Step 8: Add More Lines
Use some paper towel to wipe the coloured shell and let it dry completely before waxing again. Then decorate the inner part of the triangles with dots and lines. What you are adding is going to keep the areas under the wax in your lighter colour shade (in my case, yellow). This time, dip your egg in orange dye (or the next darkest shade). After it dries, add some more lines and move to the red colour (or the next darkest shade).
Step 9: Fill Before the Last Colour
Once you have repeated the process for three colours, it is time for the final waxing before the darkest colour dip. Using the nail tool, fill in any empty areas and whole triangles.
Step 10: Remove the Wax
Your first egg is almost finished! When it’s completely dry, move it slowly within the flame of the candle to melt the wax. Wipe with paper towel very quickly. Repeat as many times as needed to remove all the wax and reveal the colours underneath. Keep in mind that you have to keep the egg within the flame. If it moves above the flame your colours will burn black and destroy the design.
Step 11: Final Cleaning
You will reach a point when the egg will become very warm. You have to stop and let it rest and cool to room temperature again. Then you can put it back in the flame and remove the final pieces of wax. That’s it – you’ve completed your first pysanka!
Now here are three more designs to try.
How to Make Three Colour Spirals
For this design, follow the same procedure outlined above but instead of triangles, draw spirals and dots. Dip in three different colours. You can use a bright colour for the last dip instead of a dark shade.
How to Make Watermelon Stripes
For this amazing stripey effect, dip once without any wax on. Then make vertical stripes all around the egg. Dip in a slightly darker tint of the same colour. Repeat for about four dips.
How to Make Polka Dots
For a polka dot design, just add drops of wax. You can use the same colour in different shades, or many different colours for a more vivid result.
Polish and display
You should now have a very fine collection of brightly coloured Easter eggs. Give them a final polish by adding a few drops of vegetable oil to a piece of paper towel. Rub gently until your eggs have a soft sheen.
Display your pysanky eggs in a bowl for a gorgeous Easter display, or hang them from the branches of your Easter tree.