A pysanka (Ukrainian: писанка, plural: pysanky) is a Ukrainian Easter egg, decorated using a wax-resist (batik) method. The word comes from the verb pysaty, “to write”, as the designs are not painted on, but written with beeswax. The word pysanka refers specifically to an egg decorated with traditional Ukrainian folk designs, and is not a generic term for any egg decorated using wax resist.
Pysanky uses a wax-resist process. You start with the lightest color, white (if you use a white egg). Everything that you want to remain white, you cover with wax, using the kistka (stylus). Then, you dye the egg, usually yellow. Wherever there is wax, the yellow dye will not be able to penetrate. This preserves the white part of the design under the wax. On your yellow egg, you mark with wax all the parts of the design that you want to remain yellow. Then dye it in the next dye bath, in progressively darker colors, add more wax, and so on. In the end, you will have an egg with a great deal of wax on it – if black is your finishing color, you will end up with a virtually black egg. Then, using the side of a candle flame, you melt away the wax, revealing the colors that were protected underneath.
(1) Make your dyes. Instructions for the dyes will come written on the packet outside. Follow them carefully. If it says to add vinegar, do so, but don’t add vinegar if it says not to! Dyes like Orange and Pink are weakened/ruined by vinegar, so never add vinegar to them. Once you’ve made them, let them cool down (you can’t use them while they’re hot). While they’re cooling, take the eggs you’ll be using out of the refrigerator, and let them come to room temperature (don’t force the eggs to come to temperature in warm water: this can sometimes affect the egg’s surface in a negative way).
(2) Cover your work area with old newspapers. Have your cooled dyes in jars on the work area. Set your room-temperature eggs on a soft layer of tissues (fold a couple of tissues over in the middle to make a soft “pillow”).
(3) Clean your egg with a mixture of diluted vinegar – dab the egg with a tissue dipped in the vinegar solution, or dip the egg in a shallow bowl half-filled with the vinegar solution. Dab the egg dry – never rub.
Applying the Design
(1) Proceed to draw the basic design on the egg lightly with the pencil. In the beginning, you may wish to use the elastic band around the egg to aid in drawing the lines straight. If you make a mistake with the pencil, do NOT use the eraser on it. Remember, the pencil lines (if drawn on lightly) will not show up in the final design, so mistakes are OK.
(2) Heat the head of the kistka in the flame of the candle for 20-30 seconds. Then scoop a little beeswax into the funnel of the kistka. Reheat the kistka in the flame until the wax is melted. If you leave the kistka in the flame too long, it might catch on fire. (Don’t worry, they are very easy to blow out!)
(3) Especially in the beginning, you should test the wax flow from the kistka on the newspaper before writing any wax lines on the egg. Occasionally, from over-filling and/or overheating, the kistka will let out a large blob of wax. If this should happen on the egg, there is nothing you can do. The wax bonds instantly to the eggshell; even if you try to scrape the wax off, the blob will still appear in your final design (but you can try to reduce the damage – learn more). Don’t feel badly if this happens – even the most experienced egg artist has the occasional blob in their designs. If at all possible, try to incorporate it into the design. If you can’t, remember: any art made by humans is going to have mistakes in it – that’s what makes each egg truly unique and beautiful.
(4) Use the suggested kistka to apply wax to the egg, everywhere that there are new lines in that step of the design. Remember to apply the wax on BOTH SIDES of the egg. The dye will not go anywhere you apply wax. You’ll be using the fine kistka for fine lines, and the heavy kistka for filling in large sections. Keep in mind that the pencil lines are just guides, and you won’t be covering all of them with wax. After applying the wax for a color, double check your egg to make sure you didn’t miss any lines. Dip the egg in the next dye stated. Leave the eggs in about 15 minutes, or until it is the desired brightness. Remove the eggs with the spoon, and dab dry with tissues. For regular eggs, the dye sequence is from light to dark. For bleached eggs, the sequence can go either way, because the egg’s final color is white. You don’t need to re-apply wax every time you dip it in a dye; just apply the new lines for the color. Keep going in this way until you have reached the end of the design.
(1) When you have finished applying wax to the design, dip the egg in the final color. Wait 15-20 minutes, then remove the egg from the dye, dab it dry, and let it sit a few minutes.
(2) If you are doing a BLEACHED egg, you must follow these steps! Otherwise, you can move ahead to the “Fun part” in Step 3. Put the egg in the bleach solution (1 cup of water to 2 tablespoons bleach). Once the eggshell has turned white, gently rinse the egg under cool running water. Stop when the egg no longer feels slippery. Dab dry. Let it sit at least 1/2 hour.
(3) Now comes the really fun part. Take the egg, and hold it near the side of the flame. DO NOT hold the egg over the flame, because carbon will collect on the shell, and darken the design. Wait until the wax looks wet (only a few seconds, usually) and wipe the wax off with a clean tissue. Try to always use a fresh side of the tissue (or a new tissue) for each wipe, or else you’ll just be rubbing wax all over the egg, and it will take a lot longer to finish your egg.
(4) For bleached eggs, you may find that the wax doesn’t come off as easily as for a regular egg. In this case, you may wish to use a little lighter fluid–pour a small amount onto a tissue, and rub the shell very gently. Be sure to dispose of the tissues properly! And don’t let kids use the lighter fluid!
(5) You may wish to apply a glossy finish to the egg once completed. You may use clear gloss varnish, varathane, or shellac. Apply a very thin layer of varnish with your fingers and set on the drying rack to dry. However, you may wish to test the gloss on a small surface of the egg first, to see if it makes the colors run (some do).
(6) At this point, you may decide whether to leave the egg intact, or drain the insides. You can buy an egg-blowing device (its fairly cheap) or a syringe to drain the egg. Follow the instructions for emptying that come with the egg blower, or read the brief instructions given on my supplies you’ll need page. If you do empty it, you should set the egg on the drying rack to let it fully drain. Once that’s completed, you can put a little dab of white glue in the holes (stick the tip of a pin in the glue, then apply the glue to the hole). Before doing so, however, you should make a decision about how you will display your egg (filling in the holes may cause complications with this).