Ukrainian Eggs, My Family’s Unique Tradition
I was old enough to be resentful that my mother decided we should spend the afternoon at the Tecumseh Antique Mall, but still young enough to hope there would be a toy horse to buy. My mom had found out a lady would be giving a demonstration on the traditional art of pysanka, and as a true home school parent she would not pass up a free educational moment.
Tucked back in the warehouse filled with grey dusty things sat a tiny old woman in Ukranian clothing, which were bright, beautiful, and hand embroidered. I was bored and 11, and disappointed there were no toy horses. My mom though, was enthralled. She bought the booklet on pysanka that the tiny Ukrainian lady had published, as well as the dye and kyskas she had made herself. That was the first year we made pysanka, know in America as Ukrainian eggs.
The Tecumseh Antique Mall closed over a decade ago. The Ukranian woman, who taught my mom, died after many years of sharing her homeland’s traditions. My mom now lives across the country, but I have made pysanka every year since that trip to watch the demonstration in the antique mall.
Pysanka (Ukrainian Egg) is a traditional Eastern European art associated with Easter. Using dyes, bees wax, and styluses called kystka, raw eggs are decorated in bright designs.
Every year, a few weeks before Easter, I invite everyone I can over to my home for a joyful day of pysanka creation. Pysanka creation – from first application of wax, to ending with blowing out the egg – takes a minimum of 2 hours. Having a pysanka party, with friends and good food makes the process supremely enjoyable.
The tools and supplies needed are specific, but last a long time. The dyes, which can be purchased on various websites, (even Amazon) last for years. When my mother moved to California in 2008 I inherited her dye, which was over 5 years old, and continued to use it for 5 more years. It does eventually degrade – some colors more quickly then others. My current collection of 14 dyes are 3 years old and are all still bright
Beeswax is needed as the “ink” to write on the egg with. I picked up some beeswax disks from a honey booth at the farmers market last year. The styluses (kystka), which is used to draw on the egg, can be ordered online. My father made mine out of dowels, copper wire, and brass plating when our family first began this tradition. Lastly, turpentine to help with wax removal, and polyurethane to seal the egg, will be required. Any raw egg – white, brown, green, duck – will work as a canvas.
To begin, the stylus is heated over an open flame. Any candle will do. When the tip of the stylus is hot, push it into the beeswax disk. Resist the urge to scoop beeswax into the styluses, this will cause uneven and patchy lines. Pull the stylus out, heating it momentarily over the candle again to ensure the wax is still liquid. Throughout the creation of the pysanka, there is almost a constant back and forth motion of candle, wax, candle, draw, candle, draw, candle, wax. Now here is the scary part – begin drawing on the egg.
Pysanka is basically a type of batik – wax is used to stay a color when the canvas is dipped into a dye. I describe it as “reverse coloring,” and that seems to help a lot of the newbies. So, at the beginning, whatever part of the egg you want to remain white, cover in wax. This is the part which scares many of the new people who come over for my pysanka parties. Every time wax touches the egg the effects are permanent, there is no erasing. So for an egg to be successful the design must be set before the first bit of wax is applied. When the egg is white, everything covered in wax will remain white. When the egg is yellow, anything covered in wax will remain yellow, and so on.
There is an order to dipping the egg in the dye, lightest to darkest. Traditionally the first color the egg is dipped in is yellow. Then, (depending on how many colors you have) gold, light green, light blue, turquoise, orange, pumpkin, pink, scarlet, orange again, dark green, royal blue, dark red, brick, brown, purple, burgundy, black. Orange is considered a “wash” because it resets the egg color, this helps in the transition between warm and cool colors. Not every color needs to be used. I’ve found the fewer the colors used the more vibrant the colors on the egg remain. Although yellow is usually the first color, if the design calls for a lot of blue, start with light blue, or else all blues will have a greenish tint.
The dye order is what makes pysanka tricky. Green comes before brown, when drawing trees open space needs to be left for the trunk, so when the egg is eventually dyed brown the area will then be covered in wax. This is the tricky part of pysanka, remembering what color is needed where, and in which order. Made more difficult as the egg becomes a covered in more and more black wax. It is a puzzle, a brain exercise, and strangely relaxing.
Eventually the pysanka will become a black oval covered in wax which will need to be removed. Here is where the pysanka’s as a visual metaphor for the Biblical resurrection celebrated during Easter is really seen. The egg becomes darker and darker, just as the world was darkened by sin. But a savior came, died for our sins, and on the third day brought light and color back to the world.
To remove the wax first scrap it off with your fingernail. This is where most breaks happen, with people pushing to hard against the egg. So be gentle. Once the majority of wax is removed wipe the egg with a towel dipped in turpentine. The turpentine will remove the last of the wax, and should not damage the dye.
When the egg is dry brush a coat of polyurethane over it. This is in preparation to blow out the inside of the egg. Eggwhite will remove the dye, so be sure to seal the egg with poly first. Then blow out the egg. I use dremel to put a hole in each end of the egg. The blown out whites and yolk are not be edible.
I’ve made pysanka for 20 years now. It has not always been a joy. For many years it was difficult to imagine a design which was worth the time it took to create. The lady who taught my mom emphasized that even though pysanka was a traditional art, designs should be personal and come from the beauty of personal experience.
Since moving to Manchester 4 years ago I’ve experienced a creative awakening. Not just with pysanka, but with all my art. So my egg is a love story to my new home. I live in the thick forest which surrounds Manchester. My days are spent walking down the village roads, with the watertower as my guide post. The great pine trees on either side of the bridge are friendly sentinels, swaying welcomes. Manchester is a island surrounded by corn and soybeans, filled with buildings now iconic in my every doodle. It is a wonderful place to be.