If you ski or snowboard, then it’s most likely that James Niehues has been your guide. Over the course of nearly three decades, Niehues has illustrated more than 200 ski areas by hand, including most of Colorado’s resorts, from Arapahoe Basin to Vail. The cartographer painstakingly paints every tree, cliff and slope on trail maps for ski areas all over the globe. Now, nearing retirement, Niehues decided it was time to launch his 292-page book, The Man Behind the Maps: Legendary Ski Artist James Niehues, that compiles each of his works.
Observing and photographing by plane or helicopter, Niehues gains an aerial view as research for each ski mountain he paints. His latest map is of Oregon’s Mount Bachelor, a longtime favorite of his that offers 360 degrees of skiing.
Yes, models of the ski trails could be made much faster by computer, but Niehues says the painter can do so much more. He says he can alter colors better than a computer and explains that the effects of the brush provide better detail on slopes and shadows too. “The visual (from paint) is more like the experience,” Niehues says. “I can paint it like it’s skied.”
Niehues, now 73, didn’t start painting trail maps until age 40. For years as a graphic designer, he considered his landscape painting as only a hobby. But long an admirer of legendary ski map illustrators Bill Brown and Hal Shelton, Niehues shuttered his job as a graphic designer in Grand Junction and moved to Denver. There, he tracked down Brown who was peaking in the career of ski map illustration. Brown was thought to be impressed by Niehues’ illustration of an aerial view of a Grand Junction community he had freelanced.
“I walked into his studio looking for work,” Niehues explains in his book, “and I walked out with a career.” That’s when Niehues signed his first ski map illustration of Winter Park’s Mary Jane territory, and his new life course was groomed.
In Colorado, Niehues’ maps can also be seen at Breckenridge, Crested Butte, Copper Mountain, Keystone, Monarch, Ski Cooper, Aspen, Telluride, Purgatory, Loveland, Steamboat, Eldora, Powderhorn, and more.
To see how many illustrations you can name, visit Niehues’ Facebook page for Name that Niehues.
For more information about The Man Behind the Maps book, visit jamesniehues.com.