There’s good chance that any time you slide off the top of a chairlift, you’ll be faced with James Niehues’s work. The 72-year-old Coloradan has hand-painted the maps used by more than 200 ski resorts. But skiing’s most prolific artist says he stumbled into it by luck. In 1987, Niehues had just moved to Denver from Grand Junction, Colorado. He had a couple of kids, and he was looking for work as a graphic designer after his work at an auto-parts manufacturer dried up. He reached out to local artist Bill Brown, who gave him a one-off job working on the trail map for Winter Park’s Mary Jane Mountain. Brown, who was the only resort-map artist at the time, was looking to retire, and he passed the ski-map mantle on to Niehues.
Aside from ideal timing, Niehues says he thinks he has an innate ability to see a whole mountain in one shot. We’d have to agree—his maps are incredibly accurate, down to the parking lots, but with a nostalgic wash of pastel color that’s instantly recognizable.
Thanks to a Kickstarter campaign that runs until January 3 (and has far exceeded its goal), he plans to release a book this summer showcasing three decades’ worth of work. Niehues told us about his book project, the mountains he’s always wanted to draw, why you can’t beat a hand-painted trail map, and how technology has changed his job for the better.
On His Process: “I always fly over the mountain and photograph it. Today I can go in deep on Google, but aerial photography gives me an idea of what it looks like that I can quote from. Then the first step is to go into a small pencil sketch. If it’s a complicated mountain, and I see different ways to illustrate it, I’ll send different thumbnails to clients. Then I’ll go into a comprehensive sketch that will be as big as the map. Once it’s approved, I’ll project the image onto my painting surface, trace every detail, and then airbrush. I start with the sky and work from the top down filling in details.”
On the Details: “It’s a puzzle to put together. I struggled early on getting the back sides of mountains right. I’m constantly trying to get all the flow lines correct and running down the page. Resorts know what they want and need, but sometimes they want to show their mountain bigger than it is. My job is to bring it back to reality. My favorite mountains are the ones where I can paint cliffs or rugged peaks and the mountains beyond. But I really like to do the mountains in New Zealand, because there are no trees there.”
On Skiing: “I learned in ski in Europe when I was in the Army. A couple of us guys took leave and went to down to Switzerland. Mine was the fastest time down, so I thought I was pretty good. When I tried to ski again at Powderhorn, outside Grand Junction, after I came back in 1969, I walked off the mountain because I couldn’t turn. On the job, I became an intermediate skier. It’s important, because I understand what other skiers go through in navigating the mountain.”
On the History of Ski Maps: “There are artists that have drawn a few maps, but there are really only two others who have done what I do. In the 1970s, Hal Shelton pioneered it here in the States. He was the first to paint trail maps, and he did it with an airbrush, because you can create subtle surfaces and lots of backlight. Bill Brown did it in the eighties, and then I took over for him. In the late nineties, everyone was looking at new technology because they thought computers could do a better job of mapping, but a lot of them have come back to my style. Now with the internet, it’s so important to have a good image. You’ve got a mountain that’s beautiful and challenging, and you’ve got to show that, and the computer images just aren’t as beautiful. This is one thing that is better done the way it was done 50 years ago.”
On Anthologizing: “Way back in the mid-nineties I started thinking that maybe I’d have enough illustrations for a book, so I started working book rights into my contract. Didn’t pursue it heavily, but then I started realizing, I’m 72 now, so it’s time to get it going.”
On Retirement: “I’ve tried to retire, but then someone will call me and I’ve always wanted to do their mountain, so I end up jumping back in. I’m doing a sketch of Mount Bachelor right now; they have 180 degrees of skiing, and I’ve always wanted to do that. An artist named Rad Smith, who is in Bozeman, Montana, is working as a protégé. He used to make maps with computers but realized he couldn’t do it as well, so he went back to painting. There don’t seem to be any others who are jumping into it. It’s a small market. It was a small market for me.”
On Art: “I think of the paintings as art instead of trail maps. In the early days, it was really about the map, but the values have shifted. Hal and Bill realized it was important to get the beauty and to give people something they could look at and dream about. I think a computer-generated map is a reflection of the office—it’s rigid. A hand-painted map reflects the outdoors. You ski to get into that environment.”