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'I'm Painting The Great Outdoors:' Ski Map Artist Reflects On Career

James Niehues' map of Breckenridge.

You know those ski maps that you'll find at resorts? Artist James Niehues has been designing those for decades. Colorado Edition recently met him in his studio outside of Denver, and spoke with him about what it's like to craft the maps, and what they mean to skiers. 

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Erin O'Toole: I did not know that those ski maps you see at ski mountains are made by a person: you. Do you hear that a lot? 

James Niehues: Oh yes, I've done so many through the years that they just can't quite grasp how many I've done. I've been doing it for 30 years, and about 200 different resorts have my trail maps. 

Can you describe the process of making these beautiful maps?

The most important thing is to remember that we're making a map, so the most important thing is to make sure that it's clear to the skiers how to get down the mountain. It's important to also portray it in such a manner that when they're on the mountain and they look around, they can relate to the trail map, so they can say 'hey, I'm right here.'

Credit Courtesy of James Niehues
James Niehues paints at a canvas in his studio.

And it's something I really try to do , and it's what my predecessors did, and then, of course, like them, I wanted to make it beautiful too. So, its very important, I think, to get into the painting of it. Today there are quite a few computer-generated maps out there, and there for a while in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the industry was kind of turning to computer because it was the new thing, and it's going to be better, and it was not.

A lot of those have returned to my work, it's more natural. I'm painting the great outdoors, the skiers are coming to enjoy the great outdoors, and the computer image is a reflection of the office. 

Do you fly over in a plane? How do you get the imagery?

Once I do pick up a job, I get all the information I can from the ski area, anything like their site maps, their projections on what they have to consider in the future and so forth, and then I'll fly the area. And I'll start very high, I start about 2,000 feet above the ski area and get a lot of panoramic views from different perspectives, and then I'll drop the airplane down to about 500 feet above the summit and do the detail shots of those slopes, and drop it even further to mid-mountain, but we'll fly down, 50% down the mountain, and get all the detail around the base.

Credit Courtesy of James Niehues
James Niehues' sketch of the Steamboat Ski Resort from 1998.

And then you come back and just begin painting?

Well, no, I'll go through a sketch period, where I'll pull out all the photographs, and look at them and refer to them and put the mountain together. It's a big puzzle, which I really enjoy. Lots of slopes are facing away from the view, so I need to figure out how I manipulate this mountain in a very realistic way so that all the slopes can be seen on one dimension.

So I'll work out this sketch, I'll do a very comprehensive sketch, and that is sent to the client, the client will make alterations to it or approve it. And from that I'll project that image right directly on the painting surface and then paint the image. And once it's painted it will be sent again to the client for the final approval.

How accurate are the trees?

The trees are very accurate. I had a fear early on that some skier might ski into a tree, look on the map and say 'hey, that wasn't there.' And the nation was sue-happy, so I've been very careful where I place trees.

Do you think of your maps as pieces of art?

I used to think of them more as maps, but towards 15 years ago onward, I really felt they were more art then map. Because I'm really manipulating the image to get it into one view and playing with the color.

It sounds like this career has been one that has brought you a lot of fulfillment.

When I first started doing this I was looking for a job, I was looking for a way to make a living. And as I got into it and really got to know the industry, and the people in it, and the skiers, it became a real passion.

Whenever I paint a trail map I paint it for the skier, not the resort. I sometimes resist what the resort wants to do because I see the beauty of it, and I want to keep it real and something that they can relate to and trust. And I think it's been so gratifying over the years that I know skiers, I've heard skiers come back and listen to their accolades of, boy I can trust you and I know that you've done it right, and I look forward to seeing your map at the ski resorts. 

Credit Courtesy of James Niehues
A collection of trail maps from James Niehues' studio.

What do you think these maps mean to skiers?

Well I hope, and I get the feedback, that skiers will come down and open up the ski maps, and over a beer they'll talk about their day, and what spills they took or what thrills they had, and it just is so gratifying to know that they're looking at my art and reflecting on their skiing. 

A new collection of James Niehues' maps is available in his new book, "The Man Behind the Maps."

This conversation is part of KUNC's Colorado Edition for Nov. 6. Listen to the full episode here.

KUNC's Colorado Edition is a daily look at the stories, news, people and issues important to you. It's a window to the communities along the Colorado Rocky Mountains.