For nearly 35 years, James Niehues has hand-painted some of the world’s most iconic mountains. But instead of hanging in art galleries, his work appears in the brochures and on the websites of the world’s ski resorts. And that’s just the way he likes it.
James Niehues sat down in his basement studio and took out his no.2 brush. With patient vertical strokes, he added the finishing touches to his latest canvas, Mad River Glen, a bowl-shaped valley, woven with ski trails, that sinks 2,000 vertical feet into Vermont’s Green Mountain Range. Autumn light filtered through the lonely high window, beyond which lay Denver, Colorado. Niehues didn’t pay it much attention. He rarely looks at real mountains when he’s painting.
There are probably tens of thousands of trees on the slopes of Mad River Glen, and Niehues has hand-painted every single one. He discriminates between conifers and deciduous trees, because skiers legitimately care about the difference. Trees at high altitudes are blue, caught in shade or lost in the ozone. Lower slopes are picked out in forest greens and pale sunrise gold. His mountains are usually frozen in a particular light, what American skiers call ‘Bluebird’, when the sun hits an acute angle and shadows catch on the snow, with a cloudless sky so blue it hurts the retinas.
On the walls of the studio hang other mountains. Boreal. Big Sky. Crested Butte. Kicking Horse. Deogyusan in South Korea. Well-skied slopes from Oregon to Maine, Idaho to North Carolina. Powder trails in New Zealand, Australia, Serbia, Chile and Japan. Niehues has painted them all. For over 30 years, he’s been almost the sole practitioner in a very niche artistic field: illustrated ski slope maps. His style has become so ubiquitous that it’s almost invisible; most skiers don’t even recognize it.
“Many skiers come up to me and we get talking and it comes out that I’m the trail map artist, and they all say, ‘Oh my gosh, I thought that was done by computers!’ And I say, ‘No, I paint all of those trees’,” Niehues says. He’s 74 years old with sharp blue eyes. White hairs rise from the dome of his head like snow-covered spruce trees. He has that native Colorado habit of dropping his middle t’s. Mountains become moun’uns.
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Niehues began painting trail maps in 1987, when he was a 40-year-old graphic designer in Denver, struggling to put food on the table for his wife and four children. Colorado has always been his home. He grew up in Loma, a dusty town near the western border with Utah, surrounded by flat-topped mesas and empty red rock canyons. The sort of landscape that stretches the eye and tempts the palette. Niehues’ father would take him on rafting and hunting trips down the Colorado River. As a small child, he would sketch animals on the family farm.
More commissions followed. Word got around. At the time, there were only two other ski artists operating in North America, perhaps the world: Bill Brown and Hal Shelton, the legendary cartographer who had revolutionized topographical maps in the 1950s and ‘60s. But Shelton had more or less hung up his brush, and Brown was keen to explore other projects. Without really trying, Niehues had cornered the ski trail map market.
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By the 1990s, he was painting 12 hours a day, seven days a week, resting his arm in a sling when it became too painful to lift the brush. “It takes about a week to sketch a large ski area, and three weeks to finish the final painting. I used to have them lined up through the summer months. Some years, I’d do 20 maps. Other years about 12.”
Niehues painted the trail map for Vail in Eagle County, the third biggest ski resort in the United States. He copied Winter Park onto Kodachrome slides and sent them to every ski resort he could think of, along with a note: “A quality illustration reflects a quality ski experience.”
Niehues stitches the aerial shots together into an initial sketch, then sends it to the client for approval. “I tell them to visually ski down the sketch,” he says, “take a run and mentally ski down it.” Once the mountain skeleton is established, Niehues begins blocking in colors using gouache (pronounced guh-wash), an opaque watercolor that’s easy to fix and manipulate. With each pass he re-wets the canvas, adjusting the light, filling in the foliage, capturing relative levels of steepness.
It’s meticulous, painstaking work. Each 30×40-inch painting will be scanned at the photo lab in pin-point, 300mb detail (for later enlargement on mountain signage), so there’s no room for shortcuts. Bill Brown and Hal Shelton used to paint trees quickly, using textured sponges, but Niehues didn’t like the technique. In his maps, 10,000 trunks receive 10,000 brush strokes.