Friday, 11 April 2014

Eggs galore!

You know what's funny?

I started this post almost a year ago and when I checked the calendar to schedule it I discovered that Orthodox and Catholic Easter fall on the same day! I think it's really neat because both sides can prepare at the same time :)

This being said, I don't endorse any religion. This holiday is simply an occasion for me to introduce you to the art of pysanky* - Easter eggs from Eastern Europe.
This is a really old technique that everyone in these parts knows about, but not so many people practice nowadays. I picked it up while working at a museum (of folk art, among other things) for a couple of years. Two weeks before Easter they hold a workshop where visitors can watch and participate as much as they want. On my first day in the workshop, I was given a goose egg shell and a pencil and an hour later, I was already answering kids' questions about the craft. The art of penning eggs, if you clicked the Wikipedia link, is not rocket science. The concept is easy to grasp - draw with wax, dip in dye; the wax blocks the dye so it won't show on the waxed parts. It's a fun activity for both children and adults, and today I'll try to cover the process from A to Z with photos and knowledge I collected over the past four years.

My first pysanky

The tutorial will be divided in 4 parts:
- crafting the pen
- preparing the shell
- the actual tutorial about creating a pysanka
[I'll make these into anchor links when I can remember how and my computer stops BSOD-ing on me]

The special pen (it's called "chișiță"[KEY-she-tsa] in Romanian)

We need a tool for drawing with hot wax. There are many versions of pens that serve these purpose. The really cool ones consist of a pig hair running through a narrow copper tube attached to a stick. If you have a source of pig hair and copper tubes, hey, more power to you! I've learnt on my own how to make a simpler pen from tin foil and a stick and this is what I'll show here.

- a wooden stick for a handle (popsicle sticks should do)
- thick tin foil; it should be thicker than the kitchen stuff but more pliable than beer cans. Mine are bits of wrap from a local type of candy.
- a pin or needle
- an awl or thumbtack
- some thin wire
- knife, scissors
- a ruler or another stick with a straight edge
- a working surface that doesn't mind a few holes :)

1. Cut a straight strip of the tin foil at least 1cm+thickness of the stick wide. It needn't be very long (about 3cm).

2. Roll the strip around the pin. To start, put the ruler (or stick) very close to the short side of the foil and bend it up. This initial bend helps the foil go around the pin.

3. Put the pin in the bend and start rolling tightly.

4. Roll a bit more until the tube looks sturdy. Trim the excess and finish rolling.

5. Make a hole near the end of your stick. I used a thumbtack.

6. Usually the stick cracks. It's not a bad thing. The hole needs to be big enough to accommodate the tube, but it must be a snug fit.

7. Push the pin with the foil tube through the hole. Make it hang about 7mm on one side. I used the thumbtack to spread the hole while adjusting the length of the tube.

If you have a piece of tube poking from the other side, you can either trim it or split it into two "wings" with a knife then push those flat against the stick.

8. Hold the end of the wire with your thumb against the stick and start coiling tightly to close the crack. Don't take the pin out of the tube yet.

 No idea how much wire is needed, I take it directly from the spool. About 15cm, I'd say.

9. After everything is secure, bring the wire back to where you started, twist the two ends together, trim and push against the stick.

This is a finished tool. I didn't manage to take a good picture before it was used, so here's one caked with wax:

The end even got a little dull, nothing a nail file can't solve!

Now that you have the special pen, you should get yourself an egg.

Preparing the egg shell

We prefer to empty the contents of the egg before decorating the shell because sometimes the egg cracks at this stage even when all precautions are taken and wouldn't it be a pity to ruin your hard work if you crack it after it's done?

So, start with a clean raw egg.
You'll need: 
- eggs (duh!)
- a thumbtack
- a clean bowl (if you plan to use the eggs for food)
- a clean syringe (5ml is best; 2ml if you're very shaky or a child)

1. This method produces an empty shell with a single hole. Place the hole in the centre of the wide end of the egg. To do this, I turn the egg so it faces me sideways, put the thumbtack or a pencil where it looks like the middle; using it as an axis, I rotate the egg a little and replace the thumbtack to be in the middle again. I keep doing this until I can spin the egg a full turn and the thumbtack is still in the middle. Then I mark the spot and graze it a little so the thumbtack doesn't slip. Hard to explain this step in photos, you'll have to trust my words :)

2. Start pushing the pin gently in screw-like motions. You'll see white dust forming around the pin.

3. After you've made the hole, enlarge it a little by scraping the edges with the pin. If the hole is too small, the egg will crack when you try to empty it. Here is what it should look like:

4. Now you are ready to empty the contents with the syringe. Contrary to popular belief, you don't pull it into the syringe; you push air inside and let the egg flow. I tried on several occasions to take pictures of this process but it ends up looking like the set from "Aliens" every single time. So I drew a little chart instead:

What you should do is fill the syringe with air, hold the egg hole side down above the bowl and start pushing air inside veeeeery slowly. Poke around with the needle to break the yolk and other stubborn chunks. Sometimes you can feel the shell swell a little. Retreat and let the egg contents flow before pushing more air. Keep doing this until the shell feels empty when you shake it.

5. Go to the sink and rinse the egg. Push some water inside with the syringe, cover the hole with the thumb, shake, and empty it in the same manner as you did in the previous step. Repeat until the water comes out relatively clean. If you're paranoid about egg bits remaining on the inside (I am ^^;), mix a drop of dish soap with the water. It will foam so much you won't know how to make it stop though.

6. Wash the outside of the shell (do use soap this time), rinse and let it dry completely with the hole facing down. You can wipe any stamps off with a weak acid like vinegar or lemon juice. Don't be too insistent or you'll dissolve the shell.

It's important to drain all traces of water from the inside. Tiny droplets trapped inside the shell will literally boil and expand during the very last step of creating a pysanka which will cause it to crack. Let it rest for a few hours at least.

The fun part, the pysanka itself

If you are a child, you need adult supervision for this. You'll be working with melted wax which is very hot and painful if it gets on your skin.

We've had children as young as 7 doing just fine in the workshop but the parents' eyes were on them all the time. Be responsible about your family's safety.

You will need:
- the empty shell
- a pencil and eraser
- the pen we made earlier
- beeswax in a heatproof container and a way to melt it
- egg dyes and the ingredients for it (hot water and vinegar)
- jars
- spoons, plastic gloves to handle the eggs (not pictured)
- a stand where eggs can dry (egg cartons are OK)
- plenty of paper towels
- newspapers to protect your workplace. Seriously, cover everything and more!

End of a typical day in the workshop.
Do you want this in your kitchen? Do you?

1. Mix concentrated dyes. You can do this ahead of time and they will keep for several days. The dye doesn't have to be hot to work, in fact it will totally ruin your wax design if you don't let it cool. Use the indicated amount of vinegar, but much less water. If you look at my jars above, they are half full - a little over a cup.

I keep hearing about special dye for pysanky, but I haven't found it anywhere (not that I've looked much). The technique is just the same with regular dye. You don't need anything fancy to get colourful results. Just make sure you buy the kind that calls for vinegar, not the kind you smear on the egg straight from the package. We usually have four colours: yellow, red (magenta, rather), blue and green.

2. Think how you'll melt the wax. Last year hubby rigged a stand for me from a stick, a "third hand" tool and a piece of floor board. I attached my metal container with the clips on the "third hand" and hung it over a burning candle:

The museum where I learnt this was even more creative. They drilled through the bottom of a coffee tin, inserted a bulb socket inside and screwed the whole thing on a wooden support. The wax was in a smaller coffee tin on an improvised wire grid above the bigger one. A 60-75W incandescent bulb provided enough heat to melt a generous amout of wax. It was killer for the eyes though.

Or you can arrange a bain-marie if you have suitable pots you don't care for (wax does not come off easily!)

3. Rub the surface of the shell with an eraser to remove all traces of grease. At this point you should be wearing gloves. Grease from your fingers will mess with dye absorbtion - not too much, but if you get uneven colouring on the dye later, it's usually the grease. Trace the design of your choice lightly with the pencil. When you're satisfied, clean the lines with the eraser and erase a little over the design too, to make it just barely visible.

Use your imagination. Geometric designs look very good on eggs, if you can manage some symmetry and straight lines. Stylized vegetal designs and cross-inspired things are frequent choices. You can look up traditional designs if you want.

I'll now use a variety of eggs to illustrate the following steps. A thumbnail of the finished egg accompanies each picture to clear any confusion about which egg is which.

4. You're ready to start using the wax pen, but first thing's first: cover the hole through which you emptied the shell with wax! Dye mustn't get inside!

Level 1 - blocking the white (shell colour)
5. The essence of the technique is to start with a clean egg and cover parts of the design with wax where you don't want dye, then gradually incorporate darker colours. I made an egg using all four colours specially for this tutorial (and hubby used 3) last year, but the colour choice is up to you. Some of the prettiest designs can be simply clean lines in the colour of the shell against a dark background.

Are you with me? Here we go, the pen has been in the hot wax for a while, it flows steadily from the tip.

Starting to trace my lines on this beautiful white shell. You can see a hint of the pencil sketch. I don't want any of it on the finished egg.

Ready to dip:

Last year's egg. Sorry, I didn't manage to snatch white ones so close to Easter:

My first egg ever:

I swear I wasn't drunk when I traced it!

To draw with wax smoothly, the tube must be very hot and perpendicular to the egg surface. It's easier if you prop your pinky on the shell. Found a picture of a girl using the pen correctly:


6. If you don't want the egg colour to show anywhere, skip the previous step and dip it in the lightest dye you do want, after you've covered the hole with wax. Hubby decided to have yellow instead of tan as the base colour, so he dyed it first and let it dry:

The succession we use with the basic colours is yellow first, then red, green, blue in any order. If you make a green egg with red, blue and yellow elements, dip it in yellow first, cover the yellow, dip in red, cover the red, dip in blue, cover the blue, dip in green. Try to use red before blue and green unless red is the predominant colour.

My first egg. You can see the dye isn't getting under the wax:

Use spoons, plastic bottles or your gloved hand to keep the shell submerged. If it leaks air, you haven't closed the hole very well - drain the egg and do it again. It only takes a couple of minutes for the dye to work. Try not to scrape the wax away. Remove the egg, pat it and let dry completely.

The other egg, the red one from the beginning of the tutorial, won't have any yellow. Red is the first and last layer of colour. After drawing with wax on the clean shell, I dipped it in red and I was done with it.

One year I felt like making only white designs on a gradient background. It's the same as using a single dye, only instead of submerging the egg completely, you hold it and dip partially, varying the contact time and patting dyes with a sponge/rag to create a smooth gradient.

The most difficul part is not letting the colours run the wrong way while the shell dries.

When the surface is dry enough to be handled, the eggs are ready for the next step. Not the gradient eggs and not the red one either; since there will be no more colour layers, those go straight to step 12. The next step is for the eggs where we want more layers of colour.

Level 2 - blocking the first colour
7. Now we repeat step 5 (tracing with wax), but this time we cover the parts where we want the first dye to show. In this case, the dye is yellow. We draw with wax over parts that will be yellow in the finished egg.
I got hubby to pose holding the pen:

He should have worn gloves but he was excited to have dye stains as proof of his first pysanka

And he's finished. The paw prints, cat faces, fish skeletons and two "belts" that need to remain yellow are covered with wax:


Make sure you haven't missed any spots! Try not to spill either. Wherever you get wax on the eggs, the underlying colour stays. All the rest will be dyed a different colour.

Ready to add another colour?

8. Dip in the next dye. Hubby chose this bright green:

The colour starts to show immediately and gets more intense the more the egg sits in the dye. The picture above was taken right after we dropped the egg and swirled it to coat all sides. This is a good time to find any missed spots and it's not too late to correct them, just wash the egg and dip it in the previous dye, then cover the spots and do this step again. The final shade we achieved is below:

Level 3 - blocking the second colour
9. I forgot to photograph my egg at the yellow stage. Here it is after the green dried and I've started drawing with wax over the leaves:

Do you see a pattern? Keep repeating steps 5 and 6 for each new colour you want on the egg.

Hubby used a cotton swab to cover the wide green band. Then he drew random dots. The wax is quite transparent, but the design will pop up as soon as the next dye is added. Actually, sometimes a bit of charcoal dust is added to the wax to make it visible.

9. Dip in the next dye...
Hubby's egg after a quick plunge in red:

After sitting submerged for a while, red in combination with the underlying green made a nice maroon colour:

This is the final colour for hubby's egg. It's now ready for step 12.

I followed the yellow and green with blue on my egg:

Hello, leaves!

Final colour of the blue dye:

I planned to use all the available colours so there's one level left for my egg.

Level 4 - blocking the third colour
10. Practice makes perfect! Trace over the newest colour to cover the parts where you want it to stay. Silly me, I forgot to take a picture when I was drawing petals around the yellow flower centres. The intention was to have green vines with blue flowers that are yellow in the middle, on a red background. So here's a picture of eggs at various stages instead:

11. Last dye! Well, for me. I only had 4 and used every single one of them to make this tutorial. The colour starts to change:

It turned into a beautiful rich red:

When all the colours have been applied, you can put away the dyes, the wax and the pen tool. There is no need to apply wax on the last layer of dye. Let it dry and you are ready to reveal the design.

This egg is ready to be wiped. It doesn't look very pretty with all that dirty wax, but this will soon be corrected.

Finishing touches
12. Get a source of heat and a clean rag or paper towel. You can use the same heat that kept your wax liquid, unless it's a bain-marie. Or light a candle. Hold the egg near the flame (lightbulb, whatever) until you can see the wax melt into shiny droplets. Then quickly wipe it away with the rag.

Hold it close to the heat, one small spot at a time.

The melted wax coats a bigger surface, sealing it and giving it a nice sheen. Look at this partially wiped egg:

Weirdly enough, this is my only picture that illustrates this step.
The wax on the top left corner wasn't wiped and the surface appears matte.

Even though the light burns my eyes, this is my favourite part! I love to see the clean design emerge from under the caked wax. Also, this completes the pysanka! Yay!

My tutorial egg:


More eggs that I've made over the years:

The gradient eggs I was talking about...

This is one I varnished without testing the varnish first. Big mistake.

People of varying skill levels can have fun making pysanky.

Check out the copycats!

From absolute beginners and clumsy children... people with more practice or imagination...

Now these were made by a dedicated artist:

Even when their creations turned out far from perfect, every workshop participant was thrilled to witness their wax designs take form after a dip in dye. Every single one left satisfied! It’s simply impossible not to feel good while looking at lines and shapes appear magically like Polaroid photographs *_*

As you’ve probably understood, the tutorial ended. If you have any more questions, check the following list and there’s a good chance you’ll find your answer.


Here goes. I’ve compiled the ones I heard at least 20 times. Feel free to ask yours in the comments!

Q: Which eggs are best for this technique?

A: It has been done with all kinds of eggs, from quail to ostrich. The ideal eggs for pysanki are super white and have a hard shell. Goose eggs are awesome. Duck eggs are nice too, but less white. For plain hen eggs, look for free-range if possible, they are usually harder. No two eggs are alike, so it's pretty much impossible to guess how the dye will work with the shell. If you have an egg that survived the process of emptying the shell, you're good to go.

Q: Can I use natural dyes?

A: Well of course you can! After all, that's how our ancestors used to do it! Be sure to use a dye that works at a fairly low temperature, otherwise it will melt your wax design.

Q: Can I use something else instead of beeswax?

A: 'Fraid not. Fake wax is brittle and will not stay fluid like beeswax. You will not be able to draw anything with it.

Q: Can I do this with boiled eggs?

A: Of course! As long as you don't mind eating your hard work. Boil the eggs as you usually do and then draw your design.

If you change your mind about eating a boiled pysanka, just leave it in the shell and the egg content will shrink into a hard ball and keep forever (or until your cat knocks it down).

Q: Why do I have to start with the lightest colour? I want a dark design on a light background and I don't want to cover all the empty space with wax.

A: Egg dyes are acidic and they depose colour into the shell by dissolving it. The longer the shell is exposed to the dye, the more fragile it will become. You'll ruin the egg trying to eat away pigment that's deep into the shell. You need to think of a "light on dark" design. It's an inseparable quality of this technique. Unless you find “egg bleach”, which I’ve only heard of, but I’ve never seen, used, or seen anyone use it. If you come across such a thing, use at your own risk (and share your results!).

There! I can’t think of any more now. I hope you liked this article. Have you tried/will you try making pysanky? Has any of the designs caught your eye? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Happy Easter, or however you say it.
Happy egg decorating!

~(^^) The Black Kitty
* "Pysanky" is an Ukrainian word and it's not what we call them; I'm using this term because it's well-known in the rest of the world. It's "ouă încondeiate" for us and the process of making them is called "încondeiere".


  1. You are quite the artist! I love your designs. I've never done anything like this before except some of the basic Easter egg dye kits here do come with a wax crayon so you can make your own VERY simple designs. I'm inspired, but goodness knows if I'll get to do anything as complex as that.

    Are you originally from Romania? My grandfather's people came from Transylvania, but they were Saxon. I also have some Saxon family who fled Romania in the 80's and are now living in Germany.

    1. I'm from Moldova. We are neighbours with Romania, share some history and speak the same language. I remember reading about your ancestry. Small world :)
      Thanks for the kind comment! My sister and I used to draw on eggs with coloured pencils or gouache when we were kids. Nowadays it's so easy to get lazy with shrinky wraps and fuss-free dye that decorate eggs in seconds. If you manage to find a bit of wax, even some dots placed with a toothpick before a quick dip in dye can recreate the magic of making a pysanka. It doesn't have to be complex to be fun. Think about it ;)

    2. I didn't know Moldovans also spoke Romanian. I do know Romanian is different than the other eastern European languages, being Latin-based.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. :) pt cei ce vorbesc romaneste :) eu impreuna cu copiii anul asta pt prima data am incondeiat oua deasemenea am folosit o chisita, condei ( instrument de scris ) confectionat den betisoarele ce folosesc chinezi in loc de lingur si in loc sa confectionez un tubulet am folosit un varf de cupru de la un pix varfurile sunt de felurite dimensini pentru a putea scrie mai gros sau subtire sper sa pot posta fotografii cu ceea ce am incondeat am facut 10 aproximativ si vreo 10 simple

    5. Bună, Cristian! Ai reușit să postezi fotografii? Mi-ar face plăcere să văd creațiile voastre :) Soluția ta pentru fabricarea chișiței e foarte ingenioasă!

  2. Ok, I LOVE this tut! *___* (And being sooo easily tempted by pretty/artistical/fun things, of course I wanna do it too!) When I started reading it, I thought it was an article on the cultural side of it, which would already have been awesome, but the tutorial part was a happy surprise! (And congrats to you and your hubby, you both did an amazing job!) I wasn't able to do it this year, but I will so keep it in my to do list for next easter. <3 After reading and seeing the pics, I remembered I did see that type of eggs on tv, as part of the easter celebrations, a few years ago. People do it here, specially on smaller towns that have stronger european roots. Btw, happy easter! *hugs* Also, great homage to our dolly mama in your most recent post! It was really very beautiful! I have a harder time with words, but I'll do a winged mermaid doll in her memory (and will use the project to "addict" a new "victim" to our hobbie ^^).. I will post about that too, hopefully after the reroot one.

    1. Ah, I got tired of yapping about egg history and symbols at the museum workshop. All the "trees of life" and "rakes" sound like old nonsense to me. I'm a practical woman, so everything I do or craft is likely to get the "tutorial" tag :) We didn't have time for it this year, although I gathered the supplies and emptied a couple of shells. We still might, because we are doing it for fun, and not for religious purposes. There's the Easter of the Dead the Sunday after Easter, do you celebrate it? Eggs are dyed for that one as well. Have fun? *hugs*
      I'd love to see the mermaid. And who's the victim, will you introduce him/her on the forum? Will you post WIPs? I have two doll plans floating around, one is a goth kid and another is a leather-clad metalhead. Tanya and I have quite different styles and I can't think of a suitable doll in her memory. The best I can do is to continue her tradition of helping and sharing. Hopefully I'll gather the knowledge and resources to put together contests, swaps and other nice things that she used to do. The post that I wrote just barely touches the surface of how much she impacted my life. I'm struggling with words too, it just felt like a moral obligation to put up something. I should have done that while she was still alive. Time flies so fast... *sigh* At least I still have you guys. *hugs again*

    2. I don't stick to tradition as well, I only don't do it for now for lack of materials and a harder egg (I have only the chicken ones, finding other types will be a bit tricky), so next easter is a good excuse to keep it in my to do list but still have time to gather ingredients. =) I'll keep an eye out, when I find the egg and wax (the wax I think I know where to find) I will sure do it (and will share my disasters)! ^__^ *huuugs!*
      The victim is my 12 years old neighbor, a really sweet girl! I'm friends with her grandmother, so I visit them often, and these days the little girl (not that little to be honest, she is 1,77m! I'm 1,58 XD) offered to help me make a doll so that I could sell it and make some money. And of course I will use the opportunity to re-addict her to dolls. ^^ She recently gave away her barbies and kept only monster highs and a couple others that are from her childhood (she is kinda in the phase of "I'm too old for dolls"). I won't introduce her yet, since she doesn't speak english, but hopefully with time that will change. =) And I love your projects ideas! Tanya did some dolls with the goth theme, she would love yours too! (My mermaid too will be more on the baddass side. ^^) And the contests idea is awesome (THAT she would love more than any doll)! :D I miss them so much, it was such a happy and creative time for us all, and always pushed us to do have something done and have fun. Do count on me for whatever you need, ok? I also thought of ressurrecting the classes sometime in the future, it's another thing she wanted to keep doing. But from wherever she is, be sure she will keep checking on us and will be very happy that we sticked together and kept her doll world and ideals alive. Ah, and she did know he was loved and appreciated! But of course we wanted to have had the time to show it more.. But we have each other and we'll keep going from there. With time it will be a bit easier.. *lots of hugs*

    3. It's a cool story! I expect a continuation and WIPs. I'll think about contests and classes, although I have no idea what I'd teach. I have a feeling there will be a Secret Santa this year and this time I want to join (which would accomplish the swap part). I need a long time to get ready because I'm very slow. I hope to have something to share by the end of the year. Tanya put so much faith in me from the very beginning and I want to deserve it. I'm motivated by you guys. We have to keep the community alive and strong even though she is no longer here to guide us, I think we can do this.


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