Navigating the Slopes
Meet the artist who guides your way
By Colin Anderson
Growing up on a small farm in Western Colorado, Jim Niehues’ love of the outdoors started early. Situated amongst 10,000-foot mountain peaks, and with red rock canyons and deserts within an hour drive, Jim was drawn to outdoor adventure. From a young age he was paddling the Colorado River and hiking and hunting with his brothers and father, all while mesmerized by the scenery around him. When he would come back from trips he would attempt to sketch and paint what he had seen firsthand, as well as his surroundings on the farm. “As a very young child I would draw the animals on the farm, and my mother figured I had some talent,” Jim recalled.
An unfortunate bout with Nephritis in the ninth grade had Jim bed-ridden for three months, but it was during this unfortunate time that he would begin his painting journey, which would become his life’s work. “During this time, Mom bought me an oil painting set to help pass my time. My first landscapes were painted from magazines as I discovered what would be my lifetime passion.”
If you’re a skier, snowboarder, or have even just spent time in a lodge, there’s a good chance you’ve been impacted by Jim’s work. Millions of skiers and riders have posed alongside trail maps located at the base and summit of mountains across the globe. Eager planners pick up a trail map and devise a plan on where the best powder stashes might be, and how to maximize the amount of runs they can get in and still beat the lunch crowd back to the lodge. Few, however, have probably noticed the artist’s signature on these, but if you look close, you’ll likely find Jim Niehues.
At 75, Jim is beginning to wind down the career he didn’t begin until he was 40. In his 20s and 30s, Jim held many jobs as an artist. He worked for an automotive company, did freelance graphic design work, and partnered in a small ad agency in Grand Junction, Colorado. He met his second wife, Dora, and in 1984 the couple moved to Denver, each with two kids, in hopes of settling down. As Jim struggled to make ends meet he went back to his interest in painting outdoor scenery and reached out to Bill Brown, one of the original ski map artists. “He liked my portfolio and gave me a small project, which he had some time before it was due, in case he had to repaint my attempt. I worked hard to mimic Bill’s technique, and my version was used by the client,” said Jim. The small inset was featured by Winter Park Resort in its 1987-1988 ski map. As luck would have it, Brown wanted to move on to other ventures and began handing over client map inquiries to Jim. “I was on to a whole new career at the age of 40 … and I couldn’t ski,” he laughed.
Jim would learn and take on the same hand-painting process used by pioneers like Bill Brown and Hal Shelton. He has since completed more than 430 maps across five continents, and each one is painted by hand. As one would imagine, the detail needed to accurately portray an entire ski mountain requires an immense amount of information. This involves gathering hundreds and often thousands of aerial photographs. Jim is often at the resort to capture the images himself and recalls the first few trips as quite the learning experience. “My first trip on assignment was terrifying. I was doing everything for the first time for real; client meetings, aerial photography, composing and painting the mountain, and delivering the finished product. I remember departing at the airport hoping I had everything I needed for the project; was I forgetting something?”
Today’s technology has vastly improved the amount of detail he can capture. When he was getting started in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the process was more drawn out. “In the early days it was a film 35mm camera. The film camera meant carrying 10 rolls of 36 exposure film from home, finding a developer on location, reviewing the 4x6-inch photos with the client during the visit and returning with all the prints for reference,” explained Jim. “Once in New Zealand I lost a roll of film from the helicopter as it rolled out the open door.”
Now armed with a 24meg Nikon D7100, Jim gets incredibly high-resolution photos, which he can bring back to his studio and begin the sketching process.
“When I shoot a resort I start with a sweep about 1,000 feet above the summit, high enough to get the entire resort at 50mm or so on the zoom. After taking various angles at that altitude, I will drop the plane to 500 feet above the summit and zoom into the top sections of the mountain for the detail and then drop to mid-mountain to capture the lower sections and base. When I review all these views I will pick the best to create the full perspective and draw a comprehensive sketch.”
Once he reviews these aerials and any other material he can get hold of, Jim will sketch out the scene for the client’s approval. Once the sketch is approved it is transferred/traced to the painting surface. “I use gouache watercolor that is easy to remove and repaint for future alterations and expansions, and I paint on an illustration board that is prepared with gesso so the paint will not soak into the board.”
After another approval, the final painting is taken to a photo lab for the scan. Jim then works on these scans to touch up areas and tweak the color. The scan is then uploaded to Dropbox and the link sent to the client for downloading. The client or their graphics people will put the trail names and symbols on the image.
For Jim, the greatest challenge is getting all slopes of a complex mountain in one flat representation of the real-life multi-faceted scene. It takes a lot of manipulation of the elements to connect all trails but keep them relative to each other to show all sides. All efforts are made to keep all runs running down-page, especially the steepest runs. “Many different perspectives flow together to create the final composition that will effectively navigate the skier to different parts of the mountain,” he said.
Once the sketch is approved, all the detail must be transferred exactly onto the painting surface. The airbrush is then used to paint the sky and all the snow’s undulating surfaces. Steeper slopes usually are shaded to set them apart from the easier runs. The tree shadows on the snow are added next. The trees are the most time-consuming part of the painting. “I have developed a technique that is creating a tree-like texture then rewetting the color to blend and adding the highlights and shadows. It is important to create the landforms with the sun’s light on the tree-covered slopes using shading,” said Jim.
A large ski resort takes about a week to compose into a comprehensive sketch and a good two weeks to paint. Once the final rendering is approved, the 30x40-inch painting is sent to the photo lab for a 100meg capture, and then off for client approval.
While some resorts use computer-generated depictions, Jim is a firm believer that computers cannot replicate what the human eye can. In his case, many resorts across the world agree with him and have supported his art when they could have turned to technology instead.
“When I met with the crew at Schweitzer in 1993, they pulled out a computer-generated elevation-lined perspective of their mountain, and they were very excited about what the new technology could do in mapping. My heart sank,” Jim recalled. “They were hiring me that day, but how long did I have? My career had just barely made it to the comfortable level, and I might very well be outdated within a short time. I left that meeting thinking I had maybe 10 years. They did hire me again in 2006 for a new updated rendering. Computer maps just couldn’t—and still don’t—match the presentation of a hand-painted map. The old way is the best. You need the human element to best relate the experience.”
Jim’s life work can now be found in a coffee-table book, which features 200 of his maps, intriguing stories and his artistic process. Jim teamed with Open Road Ski Corporation, which launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the book. The response was overwhelming; $500,000 raised, making it the No. 1 Art-Illustration Kickstarter campaign of all time. The funds allowed Jim to make the most beautiful book he could. It measures 11.5-inches tall and 24-inches wide and uses Italian art-quality printing, heavier weight matte-coated paper and a lay-flat binding. “It has been extremely rewarding to realize what my illustration has meant to skiers around the world. Most of them remember pinning the maps on their walls as kids,” said Jim.
As Jim lives in semi-retirement he is able to reflect back at his accomplishments and where it all began. He believes the luck of being in the right place and the right time played a factor, as well as passion and determination. “I think I am most proud of the fact that I am an example of what is capable if you set your mind to it.” Jim also believes his wife Dora was a major key to his success, as she helped him navigate a lot of the business side of things so he could remain focused on the art.
Jim is a recent inductee into the National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and the Colorado Snow Sports Hall of Fame. As the awards and accolades continue to pile up, Jim aims to continue to stay true to who he is. “I remain a pretty humble homegrown farm boy from the small community of Loma, Colorado, that is uncomfortable in ritzy resort accommodations. I like the smaller home-town ski mountains and cozy lodges.”
In retirement the painting won’t cease. He will take revisions to update existing resort paintings and perhaps one more resort or two—maybe. Jim has always wanted to paint landscapes and being so busy with maps has not found the time to do so. “I have hundreds of photos of scenes I’ve wanted to do. I have completed nine so far and plan to continue for years to come. After all, I started the ski maps at age 40, why not this at 75,” he laughed.
You can see more of Jim’s work at JamesNiehues.com.
Some of the Northwest trail maps produced by Jim Niehues:
Schweitzer Mountain Resort
Silver Mountain Resort
Brundage Mountain Resort
49˚ North Mountain Resort
Mt. Baker Ski Area
Whitefish Mountain Resort
… and more