Under the Soviet regime the making of pysanky was forbidden as a religious practice, but as this art form had pre-Christian beginnings and had spread well beyond Ukraine by the 20th century, it by no means was repressed for long.
In my world there is no connection of Ukrainian pysanky eggs to the realities of Christian faith and practice, though over the centuries people have come to use eggs as symbols of many truths or events. Many artists in my parish have through the years given informal instruction in this wax-resist method of dyeing eggshells, and this spring between Holy Week services I was able to take advantage of a class in which I was the only student.
Twice before, about 30 years ago and again 15 years ago, I took part in homeschool group efforts to try this art — the more recent occasion I actually organized the class! — and both times I’d enjoyed the process much more than the quality of my own results. A few of the pysanky in the top picture are from those attempts, but the only one I am certain I created myself is the one I did last week; the bowl of eggs is a combination of my collection and housemate Kit’s.
You use the same method that is called batik: you dye the egg and then apply a design in beeswax over that color in the places you want it to appear in the final product. As someone said, you have to think in reverse.
I’m not good at remembering a strategy with a sequence of steps to be taken in the future, or in reverse either, so without a lot of planning and notes to myself, which I didn’t want to take the time for, the results I get are pretty random and surprising.
At least, following my teacher’s example, I did draw a design with pencil on my eggshell. Several hours stretched ahead of me, but I knew I could easily get bogged down in the design phase — my weak area — and never get an egg made, so I sketched something like I often doodle when talking on the phone, and even that wasn’t quick. Then I dipped my egg in the lightest color, yellow.
Because I had drawn those crosses and dots on the plain white egg, using the hot wax pen called a kistka, the wax would keep the successive layers of dye from infusing the egg shell and those areas would remain white in the finished design.
As I continued applying wax, whatever lines went on the now-yellow egg would remain yellow. And so on through whatever dippings I made.
My teacher Tatiana had told me at the outset, “It takes about two hours to make a pysanka.” I think hers each took less time than that. It seemed that by the time I had dipped my egg in two colors, she had finished hers. It had been a light brown egg to begin with, so the undyed triangles are creamy.
She applied some metallic color with a pen to make her design even more brilliant.
I dipped my egg in the red dye, and she began her second design:
Meanwhile, when she learned that I would like a purple color, Tatiana suggested a series of immersions in colors that she thought might bring about that result, as she lacked a straight purple dye in her collection of jars. I tried it and we were both very pleased with this deep and glowing shade which, when I took the picture below, I was in process of covering with wax as much as possible in hopes of retaining a good amount of it in my finished design.
My teacher was removing the wax from her second egg, and soon I had done my final dip of black and held my egg to the candle as well.
At this point it’s back and forth between melting patches of wax with the candle heat and rubbing it off with a paper towel, until you have worked your way all around the egg and only the dyed eggshell remains. I was warned not to hold the egg too long near the candle, because I might burn it.
Here is Tatiana’s second egg, with some silver metallic embellishments…
And here is mine… It had taken me nearly four hours!
I don’t like it very much, I’m sorry to say. I would not use that green color again in such a prominent part of the design. And I know, I should try some curved lines next time. I hope my next time is sooner than another 15 years from now — I’m sure my hand will be even less steady by then. And once again, even though I am not thrilled with the end product, the whole process is like magic to me, the design hidden more deeply step by step until finally the waxy black cloak is taken away and the final picture is revealed in its uniqueness. Let’s do this some more!