James Niehues – The Man Behind the MapsInspiration
‘My philosophy to ski maps is to convey at an initial glance the potential experience the skier may have on the slopes; to draw them into the scene to explore the possibilities; then clearly and accurately guide them through their first chosen route and on to their next. I believe that the most effective way to do this is through freehand drawing and hand-painted images.’ – James Niehues
There is a fine art to the map of a ski hill. In a basic two-dimensional image, an entire mountain is described – its trails, lifts, ridgelines, opportunities, and dangers. It gives directions, inspires outdoor play, and showcases the beauty of a snow-covered landscape. All over the world, skiers have enjoyed learning the layouts of their resort areas through hand-painted maps. Many of these maps might start to look pretty familiar – because they were all created by the same artist. Legendary painter James Niehues has spent a lifetime creating more than 200 maps of ski resorts, all of which appear in the new coffee table book, The Man Behind The Maps: Legendary Ski Artist James Niehues.
Although mapping technology has advanced in giant leaps in recent years, James says hand-painted ski maps are still the best way to display a resort area. ‘I believe they allow the human mind a wider range of expression, which makes for a better interpretation of the mountain’s experience.’
‘Ski maps are images of the great outdoors. I feel the method of hand-painting allows a kind of freedom, from the designing of the trail system to the final rendering. When I sketch out a mountain with multiple sides I am not restricted to formulas or exact measurements. Instead, I use the imagination to manipulate features so I can connect the trail system and do it in a credible way, so the skier is aware of the trail ahead and can identify their location by referencing their surroundings on the map. In the final rendering, using a brush and airbrush allows for a wider range of texture and colour variation, to better express the natural beauty of the mountain and the experience of getting out on the slopes. A natural hand-painted image invites exploration, reflection, and planning. These ski maps are used like no other maps, not just to navigate the slopes but to represent the mountain’s range of difficulties and amenities. They are like fingerprints. Every single one is different, and offers different qualities.’
Despite the availability of mapping technologies, displaying the intricate trail system of a mountain resort remains a unique problem, which is why resorts continue to look to James to create maps that are both accurate and understandable. James’ influence on the sport saw him inducted recently into the US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.
‘Jim has played such a huge role in the development of our sport and there are so many, like me, who have been deeply influenced by Jim and his art,’ said Chris Davenport, two-time World Champion professional skier. ‘His maps are important, even vital, for everyone whose heart and soul revolves around the sport of skiing.’
At the start of his career in painting ski resorts, James would typically visit the resort with his 35mm film camera, and with the aid of a helicopter or small plane would capture his own aerial images, which he would then develop locally before beginning the process of hand-sketching, and ultimately hand-painting, in watercolours. Nowadays this process is much easier, and the pre-existing photos are of higher quality, but he says he still prefers visiting the resorts in person, and capturing his own aerial images to work from.
‘By far the greatest challenge is getting all the slopes of a complex mountain into one flat representation of the real-life multi-faceted scene. It takes a lot of manipulation of the elements to connect all the trails and keep them relative to each other, to show all faces of the mountain at once. I always try to keep all runs running down-page, especially the steepest runs. All these different perspectives flow together to create the final composition, which will effectively navigate the skier to different parts of the mountain,’ says James, who spends about a week painting each mapwith intricate detail, including hand-painting the trees between the runs.
James’ passion for the sport that he has given so much of his career to runs throughout the book, and even back to its conception. Despite an offer of a publishing deal with a large, established publisher, James opted to take a chance on a ‘fan’ who had reached out with an offer of help, despite no publishing experience. After raising $500,000 with their Kickstarter campaign, James knew the book he had waited his whole life for would be exactly as he had dreamed it.
‘It has been extremely rewarding to realise what my illustrations have meant to skiers around the world. Most of them remember pinning the maps on their walls as kids. But I think I am most proud of the fact that I am an example of what is capable if you set your mind to something. I started this when I was already 40, and I was doing everything for the first time. My first trip on assignment was terrifying. It’s crazy to look back now and see how many maps I’ve painted in my career!’