On a recent sunny winter morning, Huang Yo-chien (黃友謙), one of the few remaining traditional temple painters in the country, was filled with nostalgia as he began painting door gods on the main entrance to the Dongjia Beijhih Temple (東甲北極殿) in the Penghu archipelago.
It was at this centuries-old temple that the 77-year-old painter of temple wall and door decorations began his career 60 years ago, as an apprentice to his artisan father.
The temple in the Dongjia District (東甲) of Magong (馬公), Penghu County’s capital, was undergoing a major renovation at the time and his father, Huang Wen-hua (黃文華), was in charge of the temple’s decorations, including paintings and carvings.
Six decades later, Huang Yo-chien is doing the same work as his father — painting door gods on the temple’s main entrance and refreshing the colors of its paintings — but there are few left to carry on this highly respected traditional art form that painters like Huang have seen as a way of respecting local gods.
Driven by pressures to earn more money and complete jobs quickly, fewer young people are entering the profession, even if the nation’s 11,651 temples are still important places in Taiwanese society.
The art of temple painting was once learned through patience and years of practice, said Chiang Shao-ying (江韶瑩), a professor at Taipei National University of the Arts.
But the current business environment deters the meticulous learning of the craft, as temple paintings and decorations have become just another component in bids for complete temple construction projects.
With project budgets cut to the bone, contractors often allocate only a tiny share of the overall budget to the paintings, leaving artisans unwilling to do the painstaking work of their predecessors, Chiang said.
Temple painters were once relatively well paid compared with other professions, but nowadays they are likely to earn only NT$200,000 to NT$300,000 per project, which normally takes weeks or even months to complete.
The lower budgets have also spurred changes in temple decoration techniques that have discouraged the cultivation of temple artists.
Over the past decade, nearly all newly built temples in Taiwan have been adorned with bas reliefs, with door gods cut into the surface of their wooden gates by machines rather than being painted, shortening construction time and saving touch-up costs.
As the nature of the business and the work has changed, so has the attitude of some painters. While once truly devoted to their profession and seeing themselves as fulfilling a commitment to the gods, many today are mere contractors without any spiritual or emotional attachment to the job they have been hired to do.
That attachment compelled masters of the trade like Huang Yo-chien and his father to take an uncompromising approach to their work, but Huang also credits his father’s open-mindedness for his artistic development.
“He allowed his apprentices to develop innovative painting skills and foster their own styles, “ Huang Yo-chien said.
His father, he said, accepted his experimentation with Western oil painting and incorporating oil painting techniques into temple painting, innovative techniques that enabled him to stand out and start a new trend in the field.
Now considered one of the nation’s most renowned door god painters, Huang Yo-chien’s works can be seen throughout Taiwan, including at Sanfu Wangye Temple (三府王爺) in Keelung’s Hepingdao (和平島) and Yitien Temple (義天宮) in Sanchung (三重), Taipei County.