If you’ve skied almost anywhere in North America, you’ve probably got a few of Jim Niehues’s paintings in the pockets of old parkas and bibs, or tucked away in your glove box or, if you’re no packrat, embedded in deep in some cerebral corner dedicated to happy memories.
In the trail maps Niehues has painted for 191 resorts, it’s always bluebird and the snow is perfectly contoured in light and shadow, so that whether you’re calling it forth from memory or spreading it across your knees on a slow-moving chairlift, what you see is what you’ll get.
“I try to paint them the way they ski,” said Niehues, 74. “These images are like fingerprints. I don’t think there’s another kind of image that can really portray the quality of skiing like a trail map can.”
Niehue’s style is so iconic, and so universal, that you may not recognize it as a style at all. It’s just the way resort maps are—an efficient synthesis of cartography and landscape art, stacked by the thousands in lodges and lift lines. Though most quickly meet their end in a trash bin, each has the potential, through the magic of memory and recall, to become a valued artifact.
Perhaps that explains the response when Niehues and Todd Bennett floated the idea of collecting his art in a coffee table book. They hoped to raise $8,000 on a crowdfunding site to test the market and cover some of the publishing costs. Skiers pledged $590,000.
The project started with a call from Bennett, a ski bum turned Disney executive whom Niehues had never met. “He wanted to buy a coffee table book, and when I said I didn’t have one he said, ‘If you ever get one, I’ll help put it out,’” Niehues said. “And I’m thinking, Oh, yeah, sure.” Then the Kickstarter went through the roof. Niehues was overwhelmed by the response.
“To have the following out there among skiers, not among the resorts, but among the people that actually use the trail maps was so fulfilling,” he said. “I just don’t have enough words for it.” The Man Behind the Maps: Legendary Ski Artist James Niehues is now in its fourth printing. The 292-page hardcover contains more than 200 of Niehues’ hand-painted ski trail maps, and sells for $90 on Niehues’ website.
Niehues grew up on a farm in Loma, Colorado, where he learned to love the high plains and mountain landscapes of Western Colorado. “My dad and I and my brothers would go down the river in a little boat and hunt and fish. We had red rock canyonlands and a good river, and then on the east is the Grand Mesa,” he said. “We just had all kinds of outdoor terrain to enjoy.”
In the ninth grade, Niehues was bedridden with nephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys. The disease put him on his back for three months. He wasn’t even supposed to get out of bed to pee. To pass the hours, his mother bought him an oil painting set, and he began to paint scenes he found in magazines.
After high school and a shot at college, he enlisted to beat the draft. The war in Vietnam was raging, but the Army sent him to Germany, where he and another soldier set up an art studio in the basement of an old SS barracks. He tried skiing for the first time when he was in the service, on a little hill in Austria.
“They had a race track and I got the fastest time. I thought it was pretty hot, so when I come back home I went up to Powderhorn,” he said. The steep terrain was more than he could handle with 1960s gear and little experience. “I was trying to traverse over to the side and turn, and instead of turning I’d just run out of room and wreck,” he said. “I literally walked off the course.”
The dean of North American ski artists never did become much of a skier. Back home in western Colorado, he went to work for a car parts company, drawing tachometers and timing lights and eventually running the firm’s in-house print shop. He later struck out on his own as a graphic artist, then remarried and moved to Denver, now with four kids instead of two. Business slowed.
Niehues was 40 years old when he worked his way into the ski-map business, a niche market with just enough work for one artist to make a living. In the mid-1980s, that artist was Bill Brown. “I was looking for work because I was starving, and just by coincidence I ran into Bill Brown. I called him up hoping he had some work. And golly, I got a career.”
Brown asked him to paint an inset map of Winter Park’s Mary Jane mountain in Colorado, and the two became friends. Brown was transitioning out of the ski-mapping business and Niehues hustled to fill the gap. He had the Winter Park inset copied onto Kodachrome slides, and sent them to every resort in the country with a note: “A quality illustration reflects a quality ski experience.”
It’s an apt description of his art, which has been lauded for its intricate detail and striking color. He works in gouache, an opaque watercolor that can be layered and textured. He paints every tree individually, first blocking forested areas with vertical strokes, then re-wetting the paint to blend the colors before returning again to add highlights and shadows.
The Mary Jane mailing landed Niehues a gig to paint Vail’s new trail map, which led to more work. At his peak in the late eighties and nineties, when he was painting as many as 12 resorts in a year, put in eight-hour shifts at the easel, seven days a week. When his shoulder hurt too much to lift the brush, he rigged a sling from the ceiling and kept painting. “You need to be able to produce under pressure, and actually I think I paint better under pressure anyway,” he said.
For a time in the early aughts, as computer-aided imaging took off, Niehue’s business suffered. He dropped his rates to compete but never lowered his artistic standards. He was confident that his maps portray a mountain in a way no computer can, with a kind of spiritual fidelity to the landscape and the sport that he sums up as “romancing.”
“Early in my career, I really looked on it as being more important to get the mountain absolutely right,” he explains. “But I’ve grown to realize the real importance of romancing a mountain.” Like John Henry facing down the steam drill, Niehues became an unassuming champion of the human touch, keeping the machine age at bay.
He estimates that he’s painted trail maps for 75 percent of the resorts in North America, and a smattering on four other continents. He begins each of them with a series of aerial photographs and Google Earth views, from which he creates a detailed pencil sketch. It’s a process of interpretation, as few mountains can simply be squashed flat to fit on a map. Niehues carefully stretches and molds the terrain into a view that, while not always true to life, is faithful to the experience of skiing the mountain.
This bit of artistic alchemy required that he learn how to ski, so nearly 20 years after his Powderhorn misadventure he buckled up the boards and pointed them downhill. “Early in my career I took many a fall getting down an intermediate slope. I felt it was vital for me to experience the difficulty of the slopes. Now that I’ve done that, I don’t have to ski the mountain to do a good illustration. I can work from the aerials.”
After the pencil sketch passes muster with resort employees who know their mountains intimately, Niehues projects it onto his painting board and uses his watercolors to bring it to life. The process can take weeks of painstaking labor, but no other method yields the results that have made Niehue skiing’s go-to artist for more than 30 years.
Monarch Mountain’s Greg Ralph summed it up for a reporter back in 2007. “It’s like hearing Michelangelo is available to paint the ceiling. You say, ‘Cool, we’ll take him.’” The Washington Post picked up the quote years later, dubbing Niehues the “Michelangelo of Snow.” The New York Times answered with “The Rembrandt of the ski trail,” and the race was on. Every reporter with a thesaurus and an art history textbook chimed in. Niehues became the “Monet of the mountain” and the “Norman Rockwell of ski resorts.”
How about “Picasso of the Piste?” we asked.
Niehues laughed. “Well, I do manipulate the surfaces, so I guess Picasso would be a pretty good description maybe,” he said, ever the polite the Rocky Mountain farm boy. Though he says he’s always admired Van Gogh for the way he uses color, Niehues says there’s not much of Van Gogh, or any old masters, in his paintings. “If I’m influenced by anybody it’s Bill Brown and Hal Shelton,” he said of Colorado’s ski-art pioneers. Shelton was an inspiration and Brown a mentor, but more than anything Niehues is self-taught. His art training consists of a brief stint at Colorado Mesa University and a mail-order course as a bedridden teen.
“My mom signed me up for that,” he said. “Famous Artist School I think it was called.” Sixty years on, there’s no more famous or influential artist in the ski map world.