Learning the art of traditional Ukrainian egg painting (known as Pysanky) was not on my list of things to do on this trip. But when Oksana from Active Ukraine (who I found through Twitter!) said one of their guides, Olesia, could do a free class for me, I jumped at the opportunity.
What better way to bring out my non-existent artistic side, right?
Overall, it was a fun four hours, learning about a tradition admittedly unfamiliar to me. As it turns out, Ukrainian egg painting likely dates back to ancient times and numerous folk legends and superstitions are associated with the art. Regions, villages and families all have their own rituals, symbols and meanings for the painted eggs. There is even a museum in the western Ukrainian town of Kolomyya dedicated to pysanky, with several thousand eggs on display (which I visited about a week later).
Learning how to paint an egg was full of surprises.
As soon as we arrived at Olesia’s apartment for the egg painting class, I got my first surprise – a carton of eggs sitting on Olesia’s table. Foolishly, I thought we would be painting wooden eggs – not real eggs!
I was even more surprised to learn that the eggs were not hard-boiled, like we typically do with Easter eggs in the United States. On the contrary, our first step in the egg painting process was poking a hole in either end of the egg and blowing the yolk and egg white out of the egg.
This was not easy.
I am assuming it is related to the fact that I can’t whistle, but I also seem to be incapable of blowing anything out of an egg.
After about ten minutes of blowing with all my might (while being careful not to squeeze the egg too hard and splatter it all over myself), only the slightest bit of egg white dripped out of my egg. Sensing that I was a lost cause, Olesia took pity on me and handed me an egg that she had already emptied. Thank goodness she did or I might still be working on that egg!
With an empty egg in hand, I was ready to get started. Olesia provided us with sheets and sheets of sample designs and symbols to use if we wanted to create our own designs. Finding that slightly overwhelming, I decided to start by trying to just draw a simple line.
But first I had to master using my stylus – the instrument used to draw with melted wax onto the egg. Basically, I had to scoop some wax into a small cup at the top of the stylus and then hold it over an open flame (we used candles) until the wax melts. Then I used the stylus to etch the melted wax onto the egg.
Easier said than done.
While Olesia and her two friends made it look incredibly simple, I struggled to get the hang of it. Either I used too much wax and awkward blobs dripped onto my egg or I didn’t have enough wax and I couldn’t get anything to show up.
Growing in confidence, I decided to create my own design, using a flower that was supposed to symbolize love (hopefully creating a good luck charm that will send some romance my way).
Once I completed the initial design in wax, it was time to dip the egg in the yellow dye – the eggs are typically dyed beginning with the lightest color, usually yellow. Everything I etched in wax would remain white.
A few minutes later, I dried off my yellow egg and got to work on the next phase of my design – adding lines inside of my flower petals. Everything I etched at this stage would remain yellow.
Although Olesia told me to think happy, positive thoughts while I painted, the perfectionist in me was fighting feelings of frustration. It seemed much harder to paint on the colored egg and I felt like my attempt at creating a very fine, detailed design was just looking sloppy.
It didn’t help that my egg started oozing leftover egg white from inside, making things quite messy.
As it turned out, I was also lacking when it came to the skill of hooking the egg holder to the side of the dye jar so that your egg stays submerged in dye. See the metal holder below? In theory, I should have been able to hook that to the side of the jar to hold my egg down. In reality, I could not for the life of me get it to stay so I ended up holding it myself.
Finally, after rounds of yellow, green and purple dye that were oddly reminiscent of Minnesota Vikings colors, I was ready for the last stage in the process – melting the wax off the egg to reveal the whole design!
This involved holding the egg close to the flame on Olesia’s gas stove and then wiping the wax off with a paper towel as it melted – hopefully not burning myself or setting anything on fire in the process.
Finally, I had a finished product!
Of course, not satisfied with just one, I immediately embarked on painting a second egg. This time, I decided to skip the creativity and simply mimic an existing design.
I have to say, I think I showed some improvement!
Have you ever learned an art or craft while traveling? How did it go?