The Way to Painting
I was born in Yunlin later moved to Kaohsiung due to my family’s financial problem. I got a chance to study at private Cheng-Shiu Junior College of Technology but my family could not afford the tuition, so instead of going to college I went to work. I have always been interested in painting, I met a group of craftsmen, who were renovating and painting the temple in Linyuan, Kaohsiung, I did not know who Ching-shi Ding was but I was more and more interested in their job when I watched them working, so I asked them if they took apprentice. I was happy to tell my family that I could learn painting, but my father was not happy about my decision. He found painting not promising and told me “I don’t allow you to learn painting!” He thought learning how to fix a motorbike was more promising than painting, but I was very firm and told my father “There’s always a way out, if I work hard on it I will always have my chance.” In the end he was convinced and I started to learn with Ching-shi Ding. But for their own benefits, most of the masters would not teach you everything about their specialties, you had to secretly learn it by yourself if you were keen to know more.
When I was an apprentice I spent a lot of time on practicing depicting while other apprentices were playing billiards. They liked to tease me by saying I wanted to start my own painting business, I did not pay attention to them I just kept on practicing. But no matter how hard I tried I just could not be as good as the master, it was not until when he passed away that we grasped his techniques from the drafts he left behind.
My apprenticeship was three years and four months long but I decided to keep on learning when I met Master Bing-kun Chen. He thought I was different from others in that I was honest and hard working with little words. He found me some materials that I could learn depicting from, and he was indeed a very important person during my learning process.
At first, I tried to depict other artists’ pieces as much as possible. Different artists have different characteristics, for example, the door gods created by Li-shui Pan are all scheme and the characters are all evenly arranged in his work. I tried to tap into others’ creating concepts while painting, but I could not afford picture albums when I was an apprentice. I bought comic books and swordsman fictions instead as the movements of those characters in the comics and fictions were big. Some characters were even topless to show their torso muscles. These pictures helped me to understand more about body movement, but my master did not like them and said “what the hell are you painting about!” All I wanted was to learn human body proportion and movement via characters in the comic books. In early times, bones and body proportion were expressed through the wrinkles on clothes, but it is very hard to paint the movement right if you do not understand the dynamics between human body and bones. I believed through those detailed movements of the characters I could paint the figures on temple gates more authentically, also I could show the interaction between gods and that between gods and people.
I met Tsao-ju Tsai when he was painting stone flakes on the wall of Wanhuang Temple at Sishu. I sat there watching him painting as we talked to each other. Unlike other masters who tended to be haughty, he told me “even stones weather over time!” and asked if I ever painted on paper. At that time I could not even paint the temple right so that thought never crossed my mind. Master Tsai suggested me to create on paper and to sketch so that I could organize materials for creation via my sketches. The two suggestions have influenced on the transformation of my creation later.
Then I went to mainland China, I was so moved when I saw the figure mural in Yongle Temple, Shanxi. The mineral pigments of the mural were mixed with lots of china wood oil so they were pretty rough when being put on the wall, but the colors became very natural and beautiful after years. Although I did not try to use other ways to paint right after I came back to Taiwan, I still remembered the painting in Shanxi very well. It was until three years later that I started to try temple painting on paper. I had to try different colors and techniques just to create different textures, and since I had no one to ask, it took me nearly a year to find the right combination.
The Value and Improvement of Tempera Art
Color painting has been a part of religious art and it is also the root of a culture and an important medium to show basic values of people’s daily life. In addition to cultivating people’s aesthetics, temple painting presents people with moral stories in order for them to learn the norms of behavior. With those moral stories people can understand the core cultural value of religious art.
Painting was a technique having been neglected in early times and was only considered a job to make ends meet. This is because a master usually passed down the techniques to his own apprentices not to people from other factions, therefore, it was hard for people to know what painters did, plus in early agricultural society people were not rich, worshipers went to a temple to seek comfort from religion and did not have high demand on its amenity, they only asked it to be a shelter for them. Later in the industrial society, people’s knowledge and wealth have increased, but to establish a temple with luxury building and glamour painting became a competition, and people started to demand on the facilities. Although the facilities have been improved, people have lost their piety and sincerity in religion, so should we seek for the ultimate beauty of appearance or the peaceful harmony within? This is a question requiring constant rumination and discussion. Where should the aesthetics of temples lie in this changing environment? I never think about this issue without feeling frustrated.
I chose to go to college when I decided to change the way I create. Professor Mao-sung Tsai thought my painting skills were good enough, but what I lacked was discourse, so I thought maybe I could be inspired in the academy. Even if I knew that discourse did not necessarily come from the institutional system I still wanted to try. That was why I went to Chang Jung Christian University in 2005 for further study.
However, the frustration I got in the institute was greater than the inspiration, people questioned my creation and no one was able to rethink about creation and to support my innovation, I had to find the answers to questions of creation all by my own. At the beginning of my study, I was so frustrated that I thought about dropping out, mainly because the institute was not familiar with traditional temple painting, and I had to keep explaining to others whether my creation is considered art while trying to convince professors of the value of my creation. For example, there was one professor who thought my creation did not follow the tradition. I asked him exactly which of the traditions in which dynasty he was referring to. I think an innovator in a certain period of time can also be the “paradigmatic model” for later generations to follow. For instance, people in the Southern Song dynasty thought Kai Liang was a madman, but his ink-splash pieces have great influences on later Chinese artists. So what is tradition? When time moves on, I think it is more important to believe in my creation than to explain to others what art is.
But when I was in university, I also learned some new techniques and tried to enhance them. When professors taught us some techniques in class, I then adopted them in my creation with some changes in arrangement or in texture. I still remember one professor taught us how to rub plastic bags with water color to create special texture, later I used acrylic paint to create a texture which is more three-dimensional with the application of rubbing. If I have accomplished anything, it is because I have been thinking about how to better my creation and how to improve and innovate.
I think the reason that there is a gap between the academy and the folk is because, unlike the academy, different factions tend to have less rejection to one another in the real world, and one can learn many techniques without judging others’ creation with one fixed standard. The temple painting artists nowadays still carry the Four Wangs painting style thriving in the late Qing dynasty and early years of the republic. The style of Chun-yuan Pan and that of Chen Chou in the Ming dynasty are hundreds of years apart, but they share similarities with each other. When the Nationalist government came to Taiwan, the ink landscape artists from the mainland, such as Jun-bi Huang and Chuan-fu Fu, suppressed the development of other factions. It was not until in the 1980s when Taiwan gradually developed the discourse on localization that people started to focus on folk art. Unfortunately, these folk artists did not receive any formal education from the academy and they were less interested in discourse. Like Chun-yuan Pan, they were the artists who were about his age and had received Japanese education. They mastered in ink painting techniques but could not enter or be discussed in the art community after the Nationalist government came to Taiwan.
The Dilemma between Tradition and Innovation
Now folk art is facing many difficulties in both innovating and inheriting tradition. From my working experience, I see many challenges, from painting to restoration and from learning folk art to teaching it. These challenges are different from those in the past.
When we were young we respected gods naturally, we sought for safety from religion at that time, but now people seek for making a fortune from it. Being seen as the representative of gods, a spirit medium in a temple is the decision maker even though s/he does not have the sense for art. This is about religion and is difficult to change. If we observe modern temples, we see people do not pay attention to the position of the golden pillar and terrazzo, neither do they care about the quality of poems. Every city has a cultural center, and the temple in a village is like the local cultural center; however, people administrating the temple care least about culture. Take a Matsu temple in Kaohsiung as an example, I told the people administrating the temple that one of the Chinese characters of “An-lan” (which means calm and peaceful water) was wrong. Since Matsu is a goddess who can calm the billow and the sea, so the character “lan” should have the radical of water instead of wood. The head of the temple then asked the spirit medium for consult, and he said Matsu wanted to seize ghosts so “lan” with a wood radical is correct. This illustrates how indifferent people are about culture and I am deeply disappointed at temple creation by examples like this.
There are still many temples asking me to paint for them. Temple painting attracts more people to visit a temple and to enjoy temple art in a public space, but it requires a lot of efforts to negotiate for the fees and to maintain the pieces. I have always been passionate about my profession, but there is part of me disheartened by temple administration. If it was not for my insistence on the temple painting, I could have quitted already. It is also because of the passion that when I had enough pieces I insisted on publishing an album. Professor Chung-ray Hsiao and I went to visit a publisher to show him six of the twelve “Flower Goddesses.” After looking at them in detail for thirty minutes, the publisher who ever learned painting decided to publish for me.
Unlike that in the mainland where national or provincial craftsmen are paid by the government, traditional craftsmen in Taiwan do not get enough support from the government. The palace artists in the Song dynasty worked for the country, so they could create in a stable environment while maintaining certain quality of living standard. Now apart from “The Global Chinese Culture & Arts Award” offered by The Republic of China Senior Jaycees Club, the only official support is the National Crafts Awards and rewards granted by the Ministry of Culture. It encourages craftsmen to some extent but does not help much in passing down traditional crafts.
There are actually many talented people working in folk art, unfortunately, their talent is not recognized. The apprentices nowadays, on the other hand, do not have much patience to learn. When I was still an apprentice, I and a dozen of people stayed late at night to draw on the white paper we purchased in order to practice our techniques autonomously. Now I have about twenty apprentices. I gathered some drawings of people in different ages (young, middle-aged and old) and bound them into a collection for them to depict. A week later, I found some of the drawings tossed into a trash can in the studio and some were lost. The students always have various excuses to justify their mistakes.
The government had traditional crafts courses and I was invited to teach traditional painting, but students were mostly elderly people, who were there for recreation not for the purpose of carrying on the traditional techniques. The government paid a large sum of money, but when these elderly students finished the courses, they could not work in the folk art profession. After all, the courses are just for fun to them, so they do not help to pass down the tradition at all. If the government really wants to preserve traditional crafts, it may be a good idea to open the Third Class Historic Heritages in Tainan city to apprentices and let the craftsmen lead them to repair the heritages. If they are paid to repair the heritages and can manage their schoolwork at the same time, they will see the future of this profession. This is an incentive for the young generation to learn the techniques, because they can have a job after graduation, and the tradition can be carried on in this way.
Speaking of restoration, my master used to take us to repair the Grand Matsu Temple, and while I was repairing the frescoes, a young lad in his twenties who just graduated from college was overseeing the whole repairing project. He told me “Master, this is not how you paint this.” I turned to him and asked “How do you paint this then?”, he then showed me the book he read and pointed out how it was different from what I was doing. But why did he think the information on the book was right and what I learned from years of experience was wrong? I believe when we look for information, we also have to support it with practices. The lad’s way of getting information was to put the cart before the horse. When government wants to lead a restoration projects and when temple administrative people just want things to be done in an easy way, there are always problems in the reconstruction and restoration of temples.
The disrespect and lack of attention to craftsmen make me wonder maybe I should retire, I cannot stop thinking about retirement after passing a certain age. Most of the painting artisans only think about how to make a fortune, a craftsman in Kaohsiung can make hundreds of millions of dollars, but I doubt if he can leave anything to this society. There are people trying very hard to preserve ancient cultural relics like Wong Yeh’s koji pottery in Ci Ji temple, Syue Jia, but still the weathering condition of the pieces is beyond our imagination. As soon as I learned about this, I knew I had to change and make my creation more influential. I have been trying to secure a position in art, but temple people’s negligence of painting and the recklessness in maintenance have driven me to apply my techniques not only in temples but also on paper.
Currently modern art and painting art have no direct connection, but it seems the former has always influenced the latter. Scholars and government officials have not recognized folk art as art since ancient times and thus they never want to get involved in or adopt it, this might be a key reason why folk art always has problems to move forward. In the present, painting art has been impacted by the concepts of western painting and has changed accordingly. In particular, western concepts of sketching, coloring and painting have changed the nature of current painting art. For instance, the face of door gods has changed from the oriental plane style to be more three-dimensional; the figures’ movement has also changed from simple to drastic; likewise, artisans’ expression of the human proportion has improved by practicing on western techniques. In the past, all the flowers, birds and landscapes had standardized patterns, and one could not tell which mountains or which kind of flowers or birds they were. Now they have been presented in a realistic manner. In addition to the diversity of pigments, artists no longer have to be restrained by the pigment sources; therefore, the paintings are brighter and richer in colors than before.
I think artisans must use their intuition to selectively adopt and transform western techniques in order for painting art to have long-term and actual influences on modern art, it is because the use of pigments and traditional painting techniques cannot be learned in formal and professional education. Moreover, an artisan has to learn all the thirteen common subjects, including figures, flowers, birds, landscapes, antiquities, fish, shrimps, grass, insects and calligraphy, etc. Such a wide range of subjects cannot be learned in the academy, either. Therefore, people mastering in the profession of temple painting are probably the most versatile.
My first long scroll is Personifications of Twenty-Four Solar Terms in which I used twenty four different characters with various colors and figures to present the change of four seasons. I am planning to create The Thirty-Six Deity Guardians and other more traditional folk deities, so the scene and scale will be much bigger. I try to create different kinds of forms and seek for different ways to present my work, even though some professors do not consider what I am doing art, but in fact eighty percent of art comes from folk culture. What they do not know is I put much more efforts in folk culture painting than in the landscape painting which I have already been familiar with. When dealing with long scrolls of characters, I have to consider the arrangement of characters, the lines, the ink color and the hue thoroughly. If there is one bad stroke, I will have to do it all over again. The professors did not know or understand my process of thinking, they just made the judgment that my pieces were not worth viewing, but I do not think their rejection means anything to me. On the contrary, I wonder if they are denying their own root stubbornly. I am highly interested in all kinds of materials for creation and tend to get into them. I think people have limited life and energy, so we have to try different things as many as possible in order to make agile application of them. The religious events and traditional art in the modern society ought to be promoted, preserved, understood and absorbed with the government’s and the academies’ efforts so as to pass them down. On the other hand, we need to have diverse and innovative knowledge and discourse so that our culture and tradition is not something frozen in the past but can live with time.