Meet James Niehues, the artist who has hand-painted more than 200 ski maps

"I kind of walked in looking for a job and walked out with a career."

James Niehues works on a trail map for Gunstock, located in New Hampshire.
James Niehues works on a trail map for Gunstock, located in New Hampshire. –Image via James Niehues

From Bretton Woods to Wildcat, Butternut to Wachusett, and Killington to Sugarloaf, one artist has quite literally had a hand in the portrayal of New England’s ski scene.

His name is James Niehues, and for the last three decades he’s created trail maps for many of the most recognizable ski areas in North America. What stands out about Niehues is his distinctly detailed style. Each map is hand-drawn and painted, creating a vivid representation of a mountain rich in detail.

While computer technology has evolved considerably in the decades that Niehues has been painting ski areas, he’s never wavered in his belief that the human touch is still best. To him, it speaks to the essence of what skiers are chasing when they’re on the mountain.

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“I think it’s vital,” Niehues said of his hand-painted style. “It’s just basic. A computer-generated image that’s produced in an office reminds people of the office. I’m painting the great outdoors, and whenever you get away and go out and ski, you’re trying to get away from the office. There’s just something about the trees, and the textures, and the snow as it reflects on the undulation of the surface. It’s just something a computer can’t do. It needs the brush and the air brush, the detail that just can’t be done with a computer today.”

Ski areas apparently agree, as the 72-year-old has only seen his work level increase.

“I wanted to retire about four years ago, but then some ski area would call me up that I’ve always wanted to do, so I’d take it on,” said Niehues, who lives in Colorado. “Today I’m busier than I’ve probably ever been this time of year.”

At this point, he’s created trail maps for more than 200 ski areas. In New England the list includes:

Surprisingly, Niehues didn’t paint a ski map until he was 40, and only learned to ski after he started creating what has become his defining work. But his artistic talent was born at a young age on a Colorado farm.

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“In my early years out on the farm as a kid, I was doodling and drawing animals,” Niehues recalled. “It kind of reached into scenery, and I really enjoyed that.”

Painting, an activity that Niehues associates with some of the best moments of his life, was actually something he was first introduced to amid difficult circumstances as a child.

“When I was sick with nephritis, I had to be on my back for three months,” he said. “My mom bought me an oil painting set. That was kind of messy, oil painting in bed. But I would sit there and paint scenery to pass time.”

It wasn’t until the late ’80s that Niehues first ventured into the ski world.

“I went over to see Bill Brown, he was a trail map illustrator at that time, hoping to just get a job or maybe help him out on his work if he was overloaded,” Niehues remembered. “He actually was looking to go into video and liked what he saw in what I did, and I kind of walked in looking for a job and walked out with a career. It really developed fast.”

After initial success with Colorado ski areas, New England mountains soon came calling.

“I think Killington has to stick right up there as one of the most challenging and probably one of the most rewarding,” Niehues explained of his Northeastern efforts. “I think they still use the same image that I did back then. It was done in 1990.”

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Though Killington has expanded and changed parts of the resort since 1990, the original painting is still the one that Niehues created.

And his process has largely remained unchanged. It starts with extensive research. This includes aerial photography. Niehues prefers a plane to a helicopter, though either will do.

“I can get around easier,” he said of planes. “We can gain a lot of altitude, starting at about 1,500-2000 feet above the summit. We’ll just fly around just get different perspectives at that height, then drop it down and pan across the mountain with more close-ups. The plane I find there’s less attempt to get the perfect shot. I’m not worried about the perfect shot, I’m worried about information.”

From there, it usually requires a month to create the map.

“Usually once I get the information back and I’m back in the studio, it’ll take about a week to do the sketch and three weeks to paint it,” Niehues said.

Ironically, in Niehues’s view, the internet has helped to push ski areas away from using computers to create trail maps.

“I think [ski areas] have probably gone through this stage of thinking the computer’s a better way, and finding out that it isn’t, and kind of coming back to the hand-painted maps,” he said. “A map is their iconic image. It’s the image that is most reproduced of their mountain.”

“And now the way people plan trips on the internet, certainly a good looking map is attractive, and draws people’s vision of what they think it would be like to ski on that mountain,” Niehues noted. “If you have a good image, you make a good impression. If you just have a computer image with lines, it’s not as attractive.”

Recently, Niehues finally committed to an idea he’s had for 20 years. He wanted to put all of his maps in a book.

“It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I started thinking how I’m 72 now, maybe I better try a little harder on getting this book out or it’ll never happen in my lifetime,” he explained.

A recent Kickstarter for the book proved wildly popular, raising over $590,000, showcasing just how much he’s meant to the skiing community. The book will start shipping in June.

In the meantime, Niehues will continue with his busy schedule, creating his characteristically detailed yet functional trail maps that skiers have relied on for decades.