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One Man in Colorado Is Keeping the Dying Art of Painting Ski Trail Maps Alive

An interview with the man behind the maps.

James Niehues

The name “James Niehues” may not strike home immediately, but if you’re a skier, you’ve undoubtedly held his work. Niehues has painted roughly 255 ski trail maps, for 175 different resorts, including some of North America’s most iconic slopes. To the west: Alta, Big Sky, Park City, Heavenly, Mammoth, Snowbird, Squaw Valley, Sun Valley, Telluride, Taos and Vail all have Niehues’s name on their trail map. To the east: Killington, Mt. Snow, Okemo, Smugglers Notch, Stowe, Stratton, Sugarloaf, Sunapee and Sunday River.

For resorts, having Niehues’s signature on their trail map gives them clout and prestige. It’s like having Jimmy Chin film a mountaineering documentary or having Russell James shoot a cover photo. Now 72, Niehues didn’t start painting trail maps until after his 40th birthday. As for how he got into the industry, it started with being in the right place at the right time.

In 1988, after years working in several ad agencies, a print shop and even working as a courtroom illustrator, Niehues was looking to change careers. He had moved to Denver and, because he admired Bill C. Brown’s work, he reached out to him. Brown was also living in Denver. As the protégé of Hal Shelton (the original trail map painter, in the ’60s), Brown had been painting trail maps since the ’70s. And by the late ’80s, after nearly two decades in the industry, he was trying to pursue other passions. When Niehues approached him, Brown agreed to see his illustrations.

When they met, Brown had already been hired by Winter Park Resort to paint the backside of Mary Jane. And he had time to do it, so he let Niehues have a go. “The thought was if [mine] didn’t pass, he could still go ahead and do it,” says Niehues. “So I did it, spent about a month at it, and when he showed it to the client they never knew that Bill hadn’t done it. And then he brought it back to me and I signed it. That was my first illustration.”

To properly photograph a mountain, for mapping purposes, Niehues needs to get 2,000 feet above the summit. At this height he can see “into the trees” instead of just looking across to the horizon.

On any project, Niehues requires aerial photos of the mountain. “These photographs are for information, not for composition or quality,” says Niehues. “So anybody can shoot them.” Niehues takes a lot of these photos himself. When it’s not him, he prefers to work with amateurs who aren’t after that one Chris Burkard-like moment of magic. There have been numerous times, he says, where the photos had to be reshot because they didn’t capture the right information.

Can you guess the unlabeled mountains in the header image and the image above? (answers at bottom of post)

To properly photograph a mountain, for mapping purposes, Niehues needs to get 2,000 feet above the summit. At this height he can see “into the trees” instead of just looking across to the horizon. Niehues takes a sweep at this elevation, snapping about 20 photos. He’ll then drop down to 1,000 to take another sweep, and then down to 500 feet, where he’ll also use a telephoto lens to capture the details: lifts, buildings and junctures of trails. This level of detail is crucial to mapping. “If I didn’t have aerial photography, and had to rely on Google Earth, it probably wouldn’t be what it is,” says Niehues. “It wouldn’t have any detail or the understanding of the slopes.”

Niehues doesn’t choose photos to trace them. They’re there to help him “manipulate perspectives,” which he has to do with any mountain that has more than one “facing slope” — which is most mountains. The more facets, the more manipulation. When sketching, Niehues focuses on getting the elevations correct (at least their relationship to each other) and makes sure everything lines up. There aren’t any secrets, says Niehues; it’s just taking what you have in front of you and stretching it here or changing the angle there. And it has to be done in a way that the skier absolutely believes it as truth.

Once the client approves the sketch, it’s then projected onto an illustration board (30 x 40 inches) and Niehues traces it. Then comes paint. Through the years, the painting process — from Shelton to Brown to Niehues — hasn’t changed much, says Niehues. He uses a Winsor & Newton designer gouache and standard brushes, nothing special. A layer of gesso goes on the illustration board. The gesso does three things: it prevents the paint from sinking into the board; it makes it easier for the painter to lift off the old color and repaint it, if that’s necessary down the road; and it gives the colors more intensity. The sky and snow are airbrushed before any paint touches the board. Then Niehues takes out his brushes. “I start painting in all the tree shadows. Once that’s done I’ll start at the top of the slopes and then work my way down with all the detail. So, all the cliffs and trees, right on way to the bottom.”

When finished, the illustration is taken to a photo lab, where they pull a very detailed, 100-megapixel scan. When Niehues first started, he’d get an 8 x 10-inch transparency of the illustration, which he describes as just a four-color slide, and the resort would use this to get printed. The finished print wasn’t nearly as detailed, and transparencies aren’t used anymore. The only other difference today is that Niehues gets a final scan back. He he can enhance the illustration’s colors and add additional contrast (mostly with Photoshop). The final product goes to the client, who will then have a graphic artist add trail names and other symbols to the trail map.

In some years, Niehues estimates he’ll paint between 15 and 20 ski areas. The larger the ski area, the more time it takes. “Without the involvement of client contact or approvals, I can do a large sketch on a large ski area in a week and I can paint it in two to three weeks,” says Niehues. He starts getting calls from clients between December and February, as that’s when ski resorts know their budget for next year and if they need a new trail map.

But ski resorts don’t need new trail maps painted every year. In fact, Niehues says his very first painting of Winter Park Resort is still in use today — 28 years later. “They’ll never come for another trail map if they like the one they have,” says Niehues. “There are some years when I’ve only had five or six [to do], and that’s when you start reaching out to Chambers of Commerce or Visitor Boroughs and try to get some regionals to do.”

There aren’t any secrets. It’s just taking what you have in front of you and stretching it here or changing the angle there. And it has to be done in a way that the skier absolutely believes it as truth.

The ski trail map industry is decisively small. “There’s not much room for several artists to make a living, and it was pretty difficult for me,” says Niehues. “Either I worried about getting enough work in, or I was worried about being able to produce what I got — it’s up and down.” There are other artists who paint one here and there, but Niehues himself makes it tough for new artists to break into the industry. In his contract, Niehues says he retains ownership of the original art, and he keeps all of the illustration boards. This means whenever a resort needs an adjustment — say, when a trail is added — they can contact Niehues to touch up the original artwork. As far as royalties, Niehues says he’s paid once, and from there the resort can use the painting in any way promoting their area. “Hal [Shelton] didn’t want to be a policeman,” says Niehues, “And I think most trail map artists don’t want to be in a situation where they have to keep track of them every year.” Especially if the resort’s in a different country.

Over the years, Niehues has used his profession as a means to travel (and ski). He’s painted ski trail maps in New Zealand, Austria and Australia. He’s also been able to paint trail maps for resorts that he hasn’t visited, like in Serbia, Japan, China, Korea and South America. On these assignments, the resort hires somebody else to shoot the aerial photography.

At the moment, Niehues — who, at 70, is in a bit of “a retirement mode” — has taken a young man named Rad Smith under his wing. Smith had previously made computer-generated trail maps. And he did a good job, says Niehues. “But he realized that he couldn’t do what I do.” Now, in pursuit of a better more beautiful trail map, Smith has turned to the brush and watercolors. And Niehues is there to guide him.

Learn More: Here

Answers: Header Image: Sun Valley, Idaho; Offset Image: Pico Mountain, Vermont; Process Slideshow: Park City, Utah

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