The man behind the maps
December 27, 2006
When James Niehues shares a chairlift with strangers, the question inevitably comes up: What do you do for a living? His answer has been the same for 20 years.”I’m the guy that did this trail map,” he responds. “Most of the time, they don’t even believe me.”Niehues finds it hard to believe himself. The 61-year-old husband and grandfather is still surprised that he, who grew up on a Grand Junction farm and toiled through years in less-than-desirable occupations, discovered his dream job at the age of 40. His life and career, much like the ski runs he paints, have followed a winding path.His familiar signature now dons the trail maps of more than 140 resorts – nearly 70 percent of those in the United States – from Killington and Whistler Blackcomb to Aspen Highlands and Portillo, Chile.You have to look closely to find his name; it’s usually tucked discreetly into one of the map’s bottom corners, hidden amongst clusters of pine trees. On the Highlands’ map, which he painted in watercolor in 1993, Niehues’ signature lies beneath Powder Bowl and the ski area boundary. The placement of Niehues’ signature is as unassuming as the man himself, who works for hours on end in the basement of his modest Loveland home. The 12-by-30-foot space is cluttered with two computers, a scanner and his drawing table. Row after row of photographs continue to pile up. Forty-two inch-wide files rest against the walls.His name may not be readily familiar, but Niehues’ work is unmistakable. Thousands of skiers each day pick up a Niehues map to stow in their jacket pockets. Still others use the drawing to discuss the day’s itinerary, to point out a favorite trail, or to mount on their walls.That very thought is as gratifying as ever, Niehues says.”To look at what I’ve done, I’m very appreciative,” he says. “I’ve been in the right place, had some good luck and worked hard. I had some great breaks.
Hard work and lucky breaksNiehues was first drawn to illustration as a ninth-grader, when a kidney disorder forced him to lie flat on his back for three months. To help pass the time, Niehues’ mother bought him an oil painting set. He immediately went to work drawing mountain scenes.”I always dreamed of being a famous landscape artist,” Niehues says. “I’m not sure if I made it yet or not.”Those dreams were put on hold when Niehues was drafted into the Army and then stationed in Berlin. He later spent seven years as a partner and ad layout designer for the Cowden-Niehues advertising firm in Grand Junction. He tried to pursue independent illustration projects on the side, but opportunities were scarce. At the behest of his wife, Niehues relocated to the Denver area.While on the Front Range, Niehues held a variety of jobs, including one as an offset pressman. He also worked in litigation, helping design and set up displays and models to be used in court.”It was interesting, but I’m glad I got out of it,” Niehues says.Niehues caught his long-awaited break in summer 1987. He had heard of pre-eminent trail map artist Bill Brown and seen many of his works, and decided to contact him on a whim. The timing could not have been more ideal.Brown’s interests had shifted into the video realm, and he was primed to take on a new project documenting the history of narrow-gauge railroads. But he continued to receive job offers from Colorado ski resorts. He handed one off – a commission from Winter Park to illustrate the backside of Mary Jane – to Niehues.”He told me, ‘You’ve got some time on this, so let’s see how it works out,'” Niehues remembers. “It took me almost a month to do that one illustration.'”When the drawing was complete, Brown submitted it to Winter Park to rave reviews. It wasn’t until after the meeting that Niehues signed his name to the map.
Following his auspicious start, Niehues began sending out slides and mailings to resorts around the country. He would wake up at 2:30 each morning to work on various projects – from small ski resorts to PGA Tour course renderings – before heading off to his litigation job. The hours were grueling, but the father of four could not afford to give up his day job. Still, Niehues could see potential in his illustrations.Niehues received his next major break a year later, when burgeoning Snow Country magazine contacted Brown to illustrate a full-page spread on a featured resort in each month’s issue. Brown handed the project to Niehues.”He told them to call me,” Niehues remembers. “I immediately had my work in a national magazine that was reaching right to my clients. I got my images out there. I got my name out there.”I was so enthralled in it. It was so exciting. I could see the possibility of something developing. I could see what was down the road.”Six months later, Niehues took a chance; he quit his litigation job to pursue a full-time art career. He hasn’t looked back since.”I was very lucky that I was 40 years old when I got into my career,” he says. “There were rough roads here and there, but I had to jump at a chance that looked good. This is a small market, so it’s tough for an illustrator to get into it. Most of the time, things don’t fall into place. This just happened to fall into place.”Maps and moreFor the past 20 years – with a few notable exceptions – inquiries from North American ski areas continued to filter in. Niehues estimates he takes on about 14 projects a year, and they all follow the process that started with Mary Jane in 1987.After agreeing to create a map for a ski area, Niehues collects as much information as is available. He combs through old trail maps and topographic maps with the trails clearly marked on them. Niehues then takes to the air, shooting 150-or-so aerial photographs in an attempt to capture all the details. He photographs the slopes from different angles, then drops in close to focus on the details and the various undulations.When tackling larger projects, like Whistler Blackcomb or Killington, Niehues likes to ski the area to get a feel for the resort and how everything relates to one another. He draws many of the smaller resorts without ever seeing them; the areas send him aerial photographs and other materials.From there, the meticulous process of transmitting the information onto one 30-by-40-inch board begins. Niehues often sends a preliminary sketch to the resort for approval before going ahead with the final painting. In that painting, more than 80 percent of Niehues’ time will be spent on the trees.
“Those resorts in New Zealand have no trees and are really easy to do,” he jokes. “It’s very hard not to get every tree to look alike.” Niehues’ ultimate goal is to maintain credibility and not exaggerate. Instead of measuring things like a cartographer, Niehues focuses on the visual differences and how different parts of the mountain relate to one another. A mountain with multiple faces complicates things, Niehues says. In some instances, he must rotate the mountain in order to accurately portray every terrain feature. In the case of mountains with multiple sides reaching to one summit, two total views are sometimes necessary.”First of all, it’s a map; second, it’s a piece of art,” Niehues says. “I try to keep it as it’s skied.”Niehues’ completed image is scanned, then transferred onto an 8-by-10 transparency. From there, Niehues can make subtle color and design changes on his computer before sending the image off to the resort to have trail insignia and other markings added. Most medium-sized ski areas will take as long as one week to paint, Niehues said. Some projects, like a regional view of Rocky Mountain National Park, can take a full month to complete. Such projects can fetch upward of $12,000; ski-area paintings cost thousands less, he says.Advances in technology have allowed Niehues to use more realistic colors on the original image. Yet technology is also threatening his business, as some ski areas have turned to computer-generated maps in an effort to save money. The move may make fiscal sense, but it sacrifices overall quality, Niehues contends.”They no longer have to rely on the artist to get a visual image, and a lot of areas are going for the cheap way out,” he says. “It’s going to be mechanical. Most computers clone one tree 100,000 times. Only somebody with a brush can really get the subtleties that nature offers. The variation and tinges of reds, the subtleties of the trees, the shadows and highlights.” The issue was further complicated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. According to Niehues, resorts re-evaluated their financial situation, and many decided to rein in their budgets. Niehues lost three of the four projects he had pending one day after the attacks.He struggled for the next few years because of a lack of opportunities. In fact, Niehues was forced to lower his prices in order to compete in a new market. Work did not pick up again until 2005, he says.To supplement his income, Niehues recently partnered with an East Coast businessman to produce posters for sale in ski shops and at ski areas. Another person inquired about having a print made that would cover an entire wall. Niehues also has been talking with an art dealer about selling off his original paintings (because most paintings are now on his computers and can be altered as needed using new software, Niehues has little need for the originals).There are other encouraging signs, too. A few resorts, most notably Winter Park, which dropped his painting for a digital image, are coming back to Niehues’ images. In addition, Niehues recently completed an updated map for Monarch, as well as illustrations for Blue Mountain Ski Resort in Ontario and Timberline Four Seasons Resort in Oregon. His summer view of Colorado Springs will soon be featured in Colorado Springs Style magazine.But Niehues will always be drawn to ski trail maps because of their demand and longevity.”Ski maps are valued more,” he says. “It’s nice to have people approach me. They value you more than if you have to persuade them they need it. They already realize they need it, that they want it.”
Art bumming itWhen Niehues discloses his occupation to curious lift riders and others, an assumption is automatically generated: “Most people think I’m a ski bum. I’m really just an art bum.”Niehues grew up outdoors, but never skied as a child. Much of his time was spent hunting and fishing along the Colorado River.In fact, Niehues didn’t even learn to ski until 1967, when he was enlisted in the Army’s security agency, and a friend persuaded him to take a two-day trip to a ski area in Austria. “On the second day, I got control of it and was really getting down good,” Niehues remembers. “They held a little race at the end, and I had the fastest time. I thought I was really hot.”Reality struck when he stood on top of Powderhorn soon after coming back to the states. Apparently mogul skiing had not been part of the curriculum in Austria. “I ended up walking off the slope that first time,” he says. “I figured I was going to hit a tree. I fell so many times I couldn’t count. I picked up my skis, put them on my shoulder and walked down.”Niehues, a self-described intermediate, hasn’t skied in four years. Much of his free time is spent camping or visiting with grandchildren near Denver and Grand Junction. He and his wife also take one trip to the Oregon coast each year.
In truth, though, it wasn’t sport, but the mountains and nature that inspired Niehues to pursue a career in illustration, he says. Even today, some 20 years after creating his first map, the excitement still drives him.”I don’t have quite the intensity I used to, but I still look at it as a challenge,” he says. “Before, I was excited about getting into a new career. Now, it’s exciting to see that potential.”He still revels in the freedom afforded by each brushstroke. And, more than anything, he enjoys the variety. Whether it’s painting Fiji’s Turtle Island, outlining the jagged snowcapped peaks of Grand Tetons National Park, drawing Highland Bowl or even a winery (he’s currently working on a project for one in California’s Sonoma Valley), Niehues embraces the challenge. He’s hoping the money generated from his latest endeavors will allow him to focus more on his areas of interest. Chief among them are the national parks. He has completed five – Rocky Mountain, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Zion and Yosemite – thus far.He’d also love to pursue ski areas in Europe and South America. And there are still a lot of great ski areas in North America – Squaw, Mammoth and Mont-Sainte-Anne in Quebec, among others – that pique Niehues’ interest. There’s also Aspen, Snowmass and Buttermilk mountains; Highlands had not yet been bought by the Aspen Skiing Co. when Niehues painted it in 1993. The Skico continues to use maps drawn nearly two decades ago by a different artist for its other three mountains; alterations to those maps are made by San Francisco-based Natalie Kitamura Design. According to Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle, the map images themselves are never changed. Rather, Kitamura focuses on lift alterations, trail name changes and things like that, which can be manipulated digitally. Regardless, Niehues plans on taking full advantage of the luck and opportunities he’s been given; it’s just too much fun to give up. “I had just picked up a job to do Vail [in 1989], and a fellow came up to me and said, ‘So now you’re the trail map artist,”” he says. “I almost turned around to see who he was talking to.”Not a lot of artists get to do what I do. I’ve got it pretty good.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org