To Map a Mountain

Visit a ski chalet and find a trail map, likely mounted atop a hearth, the imperfect tree lines and pastel color palette so very familiar, wherever you are in the world. Turns out there’s a guy that makes those. And he’s getting ready for retirement.

It would not be difficult to look at a ski map and see it as a mere tool, a flat rendering of a mountain upon which we stand buckled to our skis, a point of reference to plot a best path toward the base. But each ski map is a watercolor painting, a work of art, painstakingly developed by a single person who has skied the mountain in a way we may never ski it—carefully observing light as it hits the trails at different times during the day, casting shadows and changing colors too.

For the vast majority of the ski resorts in the world, we literally mean a single person. At 70 years old, James Niehues is a most prolific and little known artist. He has painted over 250 ski maps from 175 resorts across Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea, China, Serbia, and Chile. Some credit him with 75 per cent of all ski maps in the world, though he cannot confirm this figure with any certainty.

We sought him out in Loveland, Colorado, where he lives with his wife Dora, a quilter, to find out what becomes of a specialist who has effectively painted himself out of a market.

Anna Duckworth: As you begin to slow down your practice of painting maps, is there anyone to pick up where you leave off?

James Niehues: It's a small market and very difficult for a new artist to break into the field. I’m the only one today who has been successful in making a living at it, at least in the western hemisphere. I do get some inquiries from artists who seem interested but it never gets to a point that that they want to jump in. I think it may be because of the cartographic side of the process; most artists don't like the restrictions that are necessary. Recently though, one artist has stepped up and I do advise him when I am asked.

How would you describe what you do exactly?

I paint ski maps. I translate a physical mountain into something that makes sense on a flat sheet of paper, in a way that is most representative of the mountain. I work from aerial photographs and I usually visit the area on difficult mountains.

Smuggler's Notch (VT), by James Niehues

Have ski maps been your full-time focus since you started with them in the '80s?

Yes, this is pretty much it. Those types of maps are what I make my living on. It does get slow at times. Not every year is a good year and so I've had to go out and drum up some business with tourism outfits. I take on a few jobs like that a year. On a real busy year I think that I've done up to 20 ski maps. But on a light year, it can get down to five. But once I do one ski area, that ski area isn't going to come back to me to be re-painted for a long time. I've got maps out there that have been in use for 28 years—never updated. You kind of paint your way out of a market.

So few of you are out there painting ski maps. How did you get into it?

It’s the old story. I moved to Denver with a plan to make my own business as an illustrator. But when the going got tough, I started working in print shops (I had some background there). That’s where I looked up Bill Brown, the then established trail map illustrator. I looked him up and found he was at a spot in his career where he wanted a change, to go more into film. He generously turned a project over to me. It all started there.

Do you think of yourself an illustrator or painter?

Originally, I called myself an illustrator, but today I really consider myself more of a painter. The difference is probably only technical. I feel like I put a little more into it than I might if I were to just do an illustration for a client.

There’s something universally familiar about ski map paintings, even if they have been painted by different artists. Do you find it hard to distinguish one experience in painting them from the next?

I've done so many ski maps, it can certainly be hard to make every mountain look different. But that’s what I try to do—to capture the mood or the essence of the mountain. Sometimes I'll put in an atmospheric effect or a sun effect and come up with imaginative colors. If you look at a photograph taken from the air, it's very blackish and dull and there's not a lot of color. I try to use the colors that mimic what you might experience on the ground, down in the trees, the intensity of them.

Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons Resort (UT), by James Niehues

In all the backgrounds of your maps, there’s an attention to detail where, arguably, the detail is not so important. Are the backgrounds true to the landscapes?

I take great pains to make sure that the backgrounds are correct. I like to keep it real. I don't believe in putting high peaks behind something where there aren’t high peaks. I’ve seen trail maps before that have a signature peak that everybody knows, but as you ski down the hill, it’s not, in fact, where the map suggests. It had been put in the illustration in the wrong place just because it was a signature peak. To me that kind of confuses the viewer about where they are relative to the true environment.

There’s a design problem that you face with each of these commissions. On the one hand, you're an artist, but on the other hand you have a responsibility to provide a design solution. The expectation for an art commission is usually less about solving a problem than it is about having an artist run with their own expectations of what a work might be. With these maps there's a real specific, practical function and an expectation on the part of the client that you’ll deliver on that. Do you think of these paintings as art or do you think of them as solutions in the design sense?

I think of them as art in that things are rearranged. I play with mood and color in a way that is my creation. I'm also a cartographer, in a way, because everything has to be correct, at least in a relative manner. I don’t so much care whether my distances are exactly correct or the heights or elevations of each point on the map is exactly right. Really what I'm looking for is how the mountain is skied. My job is to portray it so that it's clear to the skier, as they come down the hill, and they can relate to the map as they go to different points in the mountain.

Do you see that as marrying the two practices—one as solution-oriented designer and one as artist?

Absolutely. The whole project is to show the mountain in the clearest form; it's a puzzle. As I look at all the different aerial photographs, I need to connect everything on a flat sheet of paper. There are a lot of slopes that wrap nearly 180 degrees around the mountain. With some of the aerials that I work from, you would not believe that there’s a way to make everything fit on a flat sheet of paper.

Does it help to be on the mountains, rather than painting exclusively from aerial photographs?

It certainly helped in the beginning. It was good to get up on the mountain and ski it. Incidentally, before I started the business, I couldn't ski. To get up there and experience it and feel it, and then to relate that experience to the aerials, I was able to remember where I skied and just how it felt and how wide it seemed. If you get a satellite view down on a ski area, the runs look really narrow and quite uninviting. It’s not at all like you experience it. What I'm trying to do is make something probably more real than it really is, by interpreting something that looks one way from up above and turning it into something more like what you would experience on the ground.

Can you tell me about some of the tricks?

From a long way back, ski map illustrators used a perspective that showed the horizon. From the very beginning, what I would do, one of the tricks, is to put a horizon in. I mean, the mountain that I would design would be from a more vertical angle looking down on it, but by putting a horizon in, one feels that they're looking across, more horizontally than vertically. This can work for me or it can work against me too. Recently I've been doing more satellite views and with more difficult mountains the runs start running across the page instead of down the page. In some cases, even up page. There's no way to get the horizon in in those cases.

You don’t use computers to render these images, to help make sense of something that, in theory, shouldn’t fit on a flat sheet of paper.

It’s really about working it out in your mind. When I look an aerial of a bowl, some of these slopes are so narrow the trees cover up the runs. I have to widen that side out and put the runs in. It becomes a design element in that sense; I'm changing almost everything on the mountain to get it to work together. I'm not a very technical guy and I probably don’t know the correct terminology to explain all this, but it's just something in the mind that you work around and I think that's one of my advantages. Because I don’t work with a computer, I don't have any numbered processes to work this out. All I have is my imagination, the human mind, which is so much more capable than a computer to do this.

The complete collection of James’s mountain maps is available at his website, Or, you know, you could visit every ski resort you can find and look at them there. Go ahead, we won’t stop you. Send us a postcard — AR

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