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The man behind the maps

James Niehues, dubbed the Rembrandt of the Snow, is one of the last great analog map makers — a ski trail map painter and an icon in the skiing world.

Smugglers Notch faces west so Niehues decided to paint an evening scene to accent its western slopes. It remains the only trail map painted with the setting sun and stars in the early night sky.
Smugglers Notch faces west so Niehues decided to paint an evening scene to accent its western slopes. It remains the only trail map painted with the setting sun and stars in the early night sky.

You may not know James Niehues but if you’re a skier or snowboarder, he’s been on the mountain with you. He’s guided you down the slopes, showed you the boundaries, pointed you back to the base lodge. He’s suggested how it might feel to ski or ride the mountain’s slopes and walls, bowls, and contours.

Niehues, dubbed the Rembrandt of the Snow, is one of the last great analog map makers — a ski trail map painter and an icon in the skiing world. He’s painted more than 430 maps on five continents over the course of his 30-year career — all by hand. If you’ve ever consulted a ski map, you were most likely looking at a Niehues work of art.

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Niehues has just published a hefty coffee table book with a collection of some 300 hand-painted maps. “James Niehues: The Man Behind the Map” was launched as a Kickstarter campaign, which attracted donations from more than 5,000 people. It’s a gorgeous read; even if you’re not a skier or boarder, you’ll see the beauty and get lost in the “mountains and woods.” (How does he paint all those tiny trees?)

We asked Niehues, who says he’s been blessed with a dream career, about his favorite maps, his New England projects, and his process.

James Niehues works in his home studio in Parker, Colo., on Dec. 17, 2018.
James Niehues works in his home studio in Parker, Colo., on Dec. 17, 2018.Lindsay Pierce

How do you get to know a mountain well enough to paint the details and nuances?

First, I go to Google Earth and “fly” it from every angle. I also browse photos of the resort and study their existing trail map. As the project moves forward, I will ideally visit the resort, ski it and fly over it to get aerial photography. If I can’t visit the resort, I’ll direct a person on their staff to fly it for me. I’ve skied enough resorts that I do not have to ski each one to know how to interpret the photos. But I always work from aerials; they provide me with all the crucial information necessary to interpret each resort.

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What’s the difference between hand painted and computerized maps?

The most notable difference is the romancing of the resort and portraying its slopes as they ski. Computer-generated maps are sterile, whereas the hand-painted images are more imaginative, portraying the outdoors with natural lighting, with endless texture variation, and subtle color transitions. With hand painting, more attention is given to details. For example, I’m very careful to place deciduous and conifer trees correctly so skiers have more identifying features to help recognize their position on the slope.

James Niehues enjoyed painting Wildcat ski area; its location is dynamic with the slopes of Mount Washington to the right, he says.
James Niehues enjoyed painting Wildcat ski area; its location is dynamic with the slopes of Mount Washington to the right, he says.

All those trees! How do you paint them?

I have painted so many trees, so many. There was a time in the mid 1990s when I actually hung a sling above my drawing board to hold my arm up while painting! In the beginning, I cut my brush so it would paint three lines, or trunks, at once, but I was unhappy with the end result.

Hal [Shelton, cartographer and ski map artist] and Bill [Brown, ski map artist] used sponges for tree patterns in the heavy forest. That technique just didn’t suit me. I finally accepted the fact that I would need to represent each tree to get the effect I wanted. The technique I ended up with was to use quick continuous up and down strokes with the brush. A whole line of trees could be painted with one paint-laden brush stroke. I painted dark color, or light, depending on the sunlight, which was then re-wetted with water to produce an effect of trees. Then, I paint in the shadowed and highlighted snow. Tree shadow is added in the sun-lit slopes. You have to have patience for sure, you just learn that in a number of days that forest portion will be finished, and you can move on to the next portion until the painting is finished. It’s all worth it. My first trail map is still in use, some 30 years after it was completed. A well-painted trail map will be used for many years.

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How long does it take to paint a map?

A map image of a medium-sized resort like Wildcat, New Hampshire, takes weeks of actual production time to the final scan. I first review the aerial photos and have a slope layout in my mind before I put a pencil mark on the paper. As I start to lay in the lift configuration, I refer to the photos to make sure there is space for all the runs in each lift pod area. This procedure and the actual sketch drawing will take four to seven days. It is sent out to the client for approval or alterations, then transferred directly onto the painting surface, tracing the exact features, trees, runs, buildings and parking to assure the image is painted exactly as the client approved. The painting will take two to three weeks using an airbrush for the sky and snow surfaces, then changing to the brush for all other features. A few resorts will come back with minor alterations after the painting, which can add another day or two.

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James Niehues, dubbed the Rembrandt of the Snow, uses aerial photography to create his hand-drawn maps of ski mountains.
James Niehues, dubbed the Rembrandt of the Snow, uses aerial photography to create his hand-drawn maps of ski mountains.Nick Van Dine

What have been some of your favorite New England projects?

In 1990, I got a call from Killington. It was a very challenging resort to paint, but the trail map image has to be one of my favorites. I repainted it in 1998 as two views, but after a few years they returned to the 1990 version.

I found the Eastern US resorts had their own personality and dynamics. The shimmer off the deciduous trees in the early morning offered a special awakening as I rode the lifts to the frost-covered summits.

The scenery, the towns and villages, was enchanting. Wildcat, Smugglers Notch, Jay Peak, and Saddleback are special because of the makeup of the scene. Wildcat’s location is dynamic with the slopes of Mount Washington to the right.

Also, at the time Snow Country Magazine offered me an opportunity to expand my scenes beyond the classic trail map which typically has midday lighting. So, I sought to give each resort their own individual look portrayed at different times of day. Smugglers Notch faces west so I decided to paint an evening scene to accent its western slopes. It remains the only trail map painted with the setting sun and stars in the early night sky. Jay Peak’s background was painted with the airbrush only, giving it a mystic feeling. Saddleback had exceptional color and atmospheric effect.

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Are you still mapping?

I just finished up Mad River Glen and alterations to the front side of Lake Louise in Canada. I am now working on some sketches that I’ve always wanted to create from aerials of National Parks. These are personal projects, scenes that are map-accurate, but more like a traditional landscape, perspectives from a little higher point of view. I am not actively seeking new resort projects but find it hard to accept retirement because I really enjoy the challenge and the chance to portray a resort in its best possible light. So, I claim semi-retirement.

Do you think in the future, resorts will go to computerized maps?

I lost quite a few to the computer in the late 1990s, but some of those resorts returned to my hand-painted maps after it became obvious the computer images were falling short of expectations. However, that being said, I fear that new developments of computer imagery technology may bring down the price and produce a better natural image. To date, that has not happened. The human touch and interpretation remain the best way to portray the feeling of the outdoors.

For more information on Niehues and to order a copy of “James Niehues: The Man Behind the Map,” visit www.jamesniehues.com.


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com