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.
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.