Millions of skiers and boarders have not only seen this artist’s work, but they’ve used his artwork for a practical purpose. However, they may not know his name, because his signature is literally hidden in the trees. James Niehues has painted more than 300 trail maps for ski resorts around the world in the past 30 years.

Just shy of his 74th birthday, Niehues has a humble spirit, but he’s enjoyed a well-deserved recent run of recognition. He was just selected for induction into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. His selection came just a couple weeks after the launch of a coffee table book featuring his work, The Man Behind the Maps: Legendary Ski Artist James Niehues. The artist is embarking on a book tour that fittingly will wrap up at the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, March 26-27, 2020, in Sun Valley, Idaho. The 292-page, hardcover book may be purchased through his website for $90.

Parker, CO. – James Niehues works in his home studio in Parker, Colorado on December 17, 2018. (Photo by Lindsay Pierce Martin)

“I’m pretty fortunate that way that I just happened to get into a field that uses art for a major purpose of getting people around the mountain,” says Niehues. “It’s a tremendous feeling of gratitude towards skiers that use them and everything. I’m really honored to be able to represent ski areas and it’s just a fabulous niche to fall into.”

Niehues typically starts a project by taking his own aerial photographs of a resort’s terrain. While  Google Earth can be an additional useful tool these days, he prefers his own personal look from above to help give him the artistic feel of a resort. “First of all, it’s hand painted, so that really sets it apart from some of the other maps that are out there— the realistic rendering of it and the colors and atmosphere about it,” Niehues says in describing his distinctive style.

Niehues’ paintings convey the skier’s experience in a way that a computer-generated map could never match. While his paintings are not absolutely exact in terms of mathematical topography, a bit of artistic license ironically gives a truer representation of how the slopes actually ski. 

Photo of Niehues’ book by Lindsay Pierce Martin

“I’m always distorting things. Even from the most simple, straight-on shots of one face, I’ll still do many things to get the runs to look and feel more skiable to the skier and more like they really are,” Niehues says. “I will distort distances and always keep in mind that I have to keep everything relevant, so that the skier who is skiing it feels that it is indeed very accurate and it is according to how it’s skied. It’s not accurate according to some program that gives you exact measurements of everything.”

Just like skiing the slopes themselves, some resorts are more challenging than others in terms of representing them in a two-dimensional painting. “It is always a challenge on a mountain like Mt. Bachelor with 360 degrees of skiing,” Niehues says about a recent project for the Oregon resort. “You certainly can’t do it in the traditional way in a one-way view to show the horizon. I do all I can to get all those runs to run down page. Mt. Bachelor was special, because most of their defined runs are on the north, west and east sides and the south side is kind of tree skiing and kind of open, so we could do it in one view and have it well represented.”

After the prep work with aerial photographs, Niehues sketches the mountain and then goes through the painstaking work of painting that can take up to three weeks for a large resort. The time required is not surprising, considering that each of those trees is individually painted. “I don’t think there’s a number high enough. My wrist twitches sometimes,” Niehues says, laughing about the countless trees he has painted in the past 30 years.

Asking an artist about a favorite painting is a little like asking a parent about a favorite child, but a few do stand out for Niehues. “I’ve always liked Telluride. Of course, they’re the western mountains with more dynamic mountains as the backdrop and also the Canadian areas,” he says. “I liked Perisher down in Australia. They didn’t have a lot of vertical feet, so I picked a real early view in the morning and it’s one of my favorites.”

Although the Colorado native no longer skis himself and used to get in at most 20 days a season, Niehues has left a memorable mark— or brushstroke more accurately— on the ski world. He first thought of a book back in the mid-90s, but the dream gained traction when Todd Bennett, a fan of his work, simply emailed him about the idea. With the backing of a small production team of avid skiers and a fabulously successful Kickstarter campaign, Niehues’ iconic work has now gone from ski jacket pockets to coffee tables for avid skiers and boarders to enjoy.

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