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James Niehues: Last man standing

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After collecting images of a mountain, Niehues produces a pencil sketch on vellum, which is then blueprinted and sent to the client for review. Next, he adds color, shadows and texture with his paintbrush, and then uses an airbrush to add the sky, clouds and snow on the slopes. Once the illustration is complete, it goes through another round of approval with the client before trail names and symbols are added. PHOTOS COURTESY OF JAMES NIHEUS

A ski map artist puts the finishing touches on a 30-year career

By Maria Wyllie

James Niehues starts his art projects in a helicopter approximately 3,000 feet above a mountain summit. He takes hundreds of photos so he can rearrange all aspects of the mountain to fit within a single, panoramic view.

Niehues, 72, lives in Loveland, Colorado and has been painting resort ski maps since 1988, and is often referred to as the “Monet of the Mountains,” or the “Picasso of Powder.” With a portfolio of more than 350 mountain views and more than 75 percent of the United States’ major resorts, he’s rightfully earned the titles.

Although the maps are first and foremost wayfinding aids for skiers, resorts also rely on them as marketing tools.

“From a safety perspective, it’s skier navigation,” said Glenniss Indreland, who served as Big Sky Resort’s brand manager for 30 years. “From an aesthetic perspective, it’s to show how expansive our terrain is.” Indreland worked with Niehues in April 2014 on a rendering of Big Sky Resort to incorporate Spanish Peaks Mountain Club and Moonlight Basin.

However, as the renowned ski map artist enters retirement, he suspects he might be the last man standing.

“I hope this isn’t true but I may very well be the last real map artist that uses a paintbrush,” he said. “I would hate to see that fade away, but I do imagine that will probably be the case. It will just go digital.”

Niehues’ lack of an apprentice isn’t unusual for his craft. During the history of mapping ski resorts, a single artist has always dominated the profession. It began with Colorado-based artist Hal Shelton, who was most active in the 1960s and 70s, before he passed the baton to painter Bill Brown.

In 1987, Niehues met Brown in Denver and accepted his first project – the backside of Mary Jane at Colorado’s Winter Park Resort.

Niehues had a knack for it and his career took off.

“I really enjoy the detail of it and the challenge of arranging things on a one-dimensional surface,” he said. “It’s kind of a unique branch of art.”

Niehues’ brush lets him do things a computer can’t—like having diversity in trees, rather than clones. “In one brush stroke there are variations in shade, color intensity and edge, which cannot be replicated in computer-generated images,” Niehues said, adding that such differentiation helps replicate the natural feel of the great outdoors.

Primarily working in gouache, an opaque watercolor medium, the process isn’t quick. From start to finish, it typically takes several months to complete any given project. Since the paintings are all for commercial use, Niehues has to keep client interests in mind too.

“In the beginning it was a challenge to make sure the clients were happy,” he said. “I would try to think of each illustration as a gemstone, getting a certain sparkle to it to portray the coldness of the winter and the glisten of the snow.”

As Niehues makes his way toward retirement, he’ll continue updating his older maps, he says, but only take on select new projects. A remake of Utah’s Alta Ski Area map is on the books for 2015, as is a trip to the Oregon Coast, which Niehues plans to paint with his oils.

A hand-painted map of Big Sky Resort’s new trail system, which now encompasses Spanish Peaks and Moonlight Basin. The painting was Niehues’ final project of 2014. PHOTOS COURTESY OF JAMES NIEHUES

With no successor in sight, the future of the ski map may be digital, but the paintbrush will be waiting.

Editor’s note: A version of this article was published in the winter 2015 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine and certain facts were updated. Niehues had announced his retirement at the time and then unretired. Read about his latest book below, which was published in the 2020 winter edition of Mountain Outlaw.

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