Empty eggs covered with an artist's gift Shells as canvas: At age 13, Don Castronova found he could create the perfect holiday gift. The industrial artist uses a process similar to etching for the egg designs.

March 27, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Who says you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs? Don Castronova does it all the time.

The 52-year-old industrial artist, employed at Bethlehem Steel for 33 years, is eating more eggs than usual as Easter approaches because he needs the empty shells for his religious paintings.

Mr. Castronova has been creating holiday gifts for his family and friends since he was 13 -- inspired by the jewel-like colors and rich designs on Ukrainian Easter eggs he admired growing up in Baltimore's Highlandtown neighborhood.

Ukrainian eggs look painted, but the flowers, animals, leaves and intricate geometric figures are created using melted beeswax and layers of dye in a process similar to etching -- one that the young Mr. Castronova found difficult to copy.

"I tried it, with the wax and everything, but I couldn't do it right. I had to think of something else," said Mr. Castronova, a burly, bearded man who lives in Jarrettsville but loves to tell stories about the old neighborhood, keeping up a steady patter as he paints.

"I thought I could paint them with watercolors, so I tried and kept going through trial and error until I figured it out. There's something about painting on an egg that's a nice feeling; it's better than paper or canvas. It's comfortable," he said.

From childhood, he said, he had a natural ability to draw -- a talent he honed in night school fine arts classes at Maryland Institute, College of Art while working as an industrial artist at Sparrows Point.

"I was always drawing and sketching. I guess I was the only kid in Highlandtown who didn't play soccer. I drew instead," Mr. Castronova said.

He uses the same set of tube watercolor paints and thin-bristled brushes that he carried to Korea as a young soldier during the 1960s. "They'll last my whole life," he said.

The artist works quickly, his eyes flicking back and forth between the egg -- propped on an egg carton -- and the picture he is copying. With a few deft pencil strokes he sketches an outline on the eggshell, then lays on thin coats of watercolors in a style comparable to miniature painting on eggshell-thin slices of ivory, adding coats until he achieves the desired color and depth.

Mr. Castronova said he still works by trial and error.

Until about two years ago, when he learned how to blow out the inside of the eggs, he was using hard-boiled eggs. Eventually, the yolks and whites dry up and rattle around inside. But if they become overheated or are placed in sunlight, even years later, they can explode -- with disastrous results.

The empty shells are easier to deal with. But before he starts, Mr. Castronova warms the eggshell under hot water; otherwise the paints will bead and not adhere.

When a painting is finished, he sprays the egg with an acrylic fixative to seal it. "Now it'll last forever," he said. He takes from half an hour to an hour to paint an egg, depending on the subject and how elaborate a border he creates around the main picture. "I just make the border up as I go along. There's no plan or anything when I start," Mr. Castronova said.

His family was active at Our Lady of Pompeii Church in Highlandtown. Once he started painting eggs, Mr. Castronova said, he gravitated toward religious scenes -- Christ,; the Virgin Mary, Madonna and Child, and saints. "There was always some little old lady who had a picture of a favorite saint she wanted me to do," he said. "I've done a few others, like for Jewish friends, but mostly I stick to [Christian] religious pictures."

He copies pictures from reproductions of old paintings printed on memorial cards from area funeral homes. "I have cards from every funeral home around," Mr. Castronova said, shuffling through the colorful stack.

Of the hundreds of eggs he has painted over the years, Mr. Castronova has only about two dozen, some of them 20 years old. "These are the leftovers," he said. "I tell people to take their pick. If someone likes it, they've got it."

Although he has worked primarily on eggs for decades, Mr. Castronova, a history buff, has done other projects, including murals of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus for the Polish Home Club on South Broadway and Christopher Columbus for the former Sons of Italy Hall on West Fayette Street.

Mr. Castronova and his wife, Jeannette, for 20 years have run Balli D'Italia, an Italian folk-dancing group for young people at Our Lady of Pompeii Church. "We danced for the pope at Camden Yards," Mrs. Castronova said. "We were the only group that was in the parade and performed in the stadium, too."

Pub Date: 3/27/96

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