A Look at The Man Behind the Maps, James Niehues

Have you ever marveled at the intricate ski trail maps found at your favorite mountains? Chances are, they were created by James Niehues, the legendary ski artist known for his beautiful depictions of the slopes.

My partner and I recently stayed at The Vintage Hotel in Winter Park, a hotel that has definitely seen its fair share of evolving ski culture over the decades, and knows what is worth keeping around. In our room hung a large ski map of Winter Park and Mary Jane done by none other than remarkable map maker James Niehues himself. My partner and I would sip our drinks from the hotel’s plastic cups and point out tomorrow’s routes, getting excited for those coveted first tracks that only sleeping slopeside affords. Not only were the maps accurate, but aspirational as they depict the gentle light filtering through the conifers on a cloudless day. We loved the map so much that my partner bought me the coffee table collection of Niehues’ work The Man Behind the Maps: Legendary Ski Artist James Niehues for my birthday. Now, we pour over the pages on a regular basis, falling further in love with the mountains and the beauty behind the maps. And today, I am lucky enough to be joined by the legend himself. It’s Dec. 21, the eve of both Denver’s coldest day in decades (with a predicted windchill of -50 degrees), and James’ (or Jim as his friends call him) birthday. Seventy-seven years young, he is partially retired but still working on some exciting projects to come (reads: outdoor industries other than skiing will soon see some Niehues art of its own). Stay tuned.

James Niehues
Photo by Lindsay Pierce Martin.

“I have always enjoyed the challenge of fitting an entire mountain on a single page. Mountains are wonderful puzzles, and I knew if I painted with the right amount of detail and care, they would last. A good design is relevant for a few years, maybe even a decade. But a well-made map is used for generations.” —James Niehues

Tradition over Technology

Skiing is constantly being revolutionized by technology’s wizardry: faster chairlifts, smarter skis, warmer gear. But decades later, we still herald the hand drawn maps of ski slopes done by legendary cartographer and artist James Niehues. It’s a big part of how every one of us skiers plans our day and finds our way home. Simply put: In Niehues we trust.

The coffee table book consists of over 200 trail maps from all over Colorado all the way to Chile and Serbie and is the perfect home adornment for any avid skier. Niehues maps stand the test of time because they convey a more accurate sense of the mountain than a scientifically correct one. He says he tries to interpret the slopes more as a skier and artist, than as a cartographer, because conveying the steepness and terrain of the run is more important than having the exact measurements. “I felt it was really important to have that on-the-ground experience. So I learned to ski on the job. At first it was a love-hate relationship, but I eventually got to be an intermediate skier. Though I have a real fear of moguls on a steep slope. Mostly, I just loved being out in the fantastic landscape, appreciating the forest in winter. I like to see what the trees look like on skis—their color, thickness and placement—to make my maps reflective of the actual experience rather than a bird’s eye view from my aerial photographs,” Niehues says in our interview.

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"The Man Behind The Maps" book
Photo courtesy of Open Road Ski Company.

Map Maker, Map Maker, Make Me a Map

Niehues first became interested in art as a teenager growing up near Fruita while bedridden with nephrites (inflammation of the kidneys) and limited to activities like drawing. In the late 1980s he began to study cartography under ski map illustration legend Bill Brown, who learned it himself from Hal Shelton, the artist who pioneered the hand drawn style used in both Brown and Niehues’ work. Brown even gave Niehues his first job drawing the backside of Mary Jane in 1988.

To make sure Niehues’ maps are accurate, he starts by going up in a small plane or helicopter to take his own aerial photographs using a telephoto lens and take in the mountain from all sides. Then, he sketches the resorts before painting and airbrushing the details that make the map come alive: the sky, the trees, the base village and the overall personality of the mountain. He has to distort the image enough that it works for a map (all runs on a mountain do not face front, but for the purpose of the map, they have to) but is still authentic to the terrain.

Styling the Slopes

His maps combine 16th century Renaissance style with modern science. The maps usually include a horizon line rather than taking a satellite view because that portrays the runs as short and narrow, not inviting to a skier. Instead, he prefers to open up the runs and creates a welcoming feeling by painting warmer colored trees near the base (crisp colors at the mountain’s top promise that elusive alpine terrain) and rays of sunshine illuminating the trees. Niehues goes the extra mile detailing multi-stemmed conifers and aspen lining the slopes with the afternoon sunlight dancing off their branches. He also paints the base village, the resort and excited skiers arriving early to the parking lot. It’s a scene that not only informs you but also invites you in.

To finish, he paints background mountains to set his map squarely in the grandeur of the great Rocky Mountains. “Telluride would have to be my favorite mountain to map because of the extreme rugged terrain.” When comparing Telluride’s map to one like Steamboat (on the opposite page in the book), which is also surrounded by impressive mountains, Telluride stands out because of the proximity of the giant peaks and the elite alpine look that comes with being above treeline.

The map always depicts a bluebird day while wisps of cloud work to cement resort’s dreamy idea that snow always comes in the convenience of nighttime. (His maps also feature clear roads–another resort ideal that in fact is far from reality. If you don’t already follow @I-70things, do. It’s good for a laugh and a way more accurate traffic check than any app.) “I mostly set my maps at noon because the winter sun is so low. At midday, most of the mountain will be in the sun, which is ideal.Then, a couple of times I have seen opportunities to do a mountain at a different time of day depending on its positioning with the sun. In my map of Smugglers’ Notch, I was able to paint it late in the evening and include a great sunset with the stars just starting to poke out.” His map of Alyeska in Alaska for Snow Country Magazine highlights the resort’s night skiing under the Northern Lights.

Telluride maps in "The Man Behind The Maps" book
Photo courtesy of Open Road Ski Company.

Resort Relations

Niehues was commissioned to paint for many resorts, a large number of those being in Colorado. The dynamic with them proved to be a subtle dance Niehues would learn over time. Resorts wanted to approve sketches, often making changes like increasing the size of their hotel. They would also take issue with background mountains, fearing they looked bigger and that skiers would be lured away from their resort towards others. “Probably the funniest request I got from a resort was from Purgatory asking me to paint palm trees in the kids’ ski area,” Niehues shares. “They were so obviously out of place, but I did them, because they conveyed the right sense of the mountain: it was a fun and playful setting to ski in.”

America’s Great Landscapes

Retired never really means retired anymore. Niehues had been compiling photographs from his travels over the years in hopes of one day painting them. “At age 74 I said to myself ‘if I don’t start now, I will never get this done.’” Three years later he has completed 40 sketches of landscapes spanning America, with hopes of completing 75 in total. This is all while being “retired.” This embarkation harks back to a past project Niehues worked on mapping some of the National Parks. In conjunction with Trail Tracks, Niehues painted five national parks (Rocky Mountain, Zion, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Yellowstone), Wasatch Front and Indian Peaks. “I really enjoyed that project. It was similar to the ski maps except that the area was much larger so I had to do more editing—more cutting out of unimportant terrain. Other than that, I followed the same process of aerial photographs, thumbnail sketches and then the final relief painting,” he says.

But don’t worry, even though Niehues has stepped back from ski map making, he has left the realm of resort cartography in good hands. Following the precedent set by Shelton and then Brown, Niehues took on a protégé. “Rad Smith, an illustrator out of Bozeman reached out to me asking for guidance on his maps. He was using computer generated maps, which turned me off a little bit at first since I am all about doing the maps by hand. But, he was making the best in the business and wanted to learn a hand painting technique under me. In the past couple of years he has come a long way,” Niehues says fondly. Smith has a fine art degree and 20 years of experience working as an illustrator and cartographer for an environmental consulting firm. He first discovered Niehues’ paintings when looking at Trail Track’s map of the Rockies. In the coffee table book, Smith wrote the introduction to the Central Rockies, home to our great ski slopes. In it he says, “[Jims’] ability as a painter is unrivaled, I think. It’s art and science, and he has this brain that really understands perspective and spatial relationships. And he combines that with a natural talent as a painter. His color combination and ability to create perspective and depth of field with pigment, it’s up there with the best landscape painters in the last couple hundred years.”

You can purchase the coffee table book, specific maps and his America’s Great Landscapes prints on Niehues’ website.