19 Jan 19
The Mercury News
PARKER — He paints exquisite mountain panoramas rich in detail, with hundreds of tiny trees painstakingly rendered. Then the images that took him weeks to create are printed on cheap paper and distributed by the thousands for free, only to be crumpled up, stuffed in pockets and ultimately thrown away in tatters.
It might seem like a forlorn fate for art so carefully conceived, but the artist doesn’t think so at all.
Colorado Outdoor Voices
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“That’s the best part of it,” said James Niehues of Parker,[cq comment=”CQ”] America’s foremost ski-trail map artist. “It’s used. Not many artists can say they have a piece of art that’s used like a trail map is. And what’s so nice about it is that they gather around at the end of the day and have a beer, pull out the trail maps and talk about where they’ve been.”
Having been treated as throwaway art for 30[cq comment=”CQ”] years at ski areas across the country — including such Colorado favorites as Copper Mountain, Breckenridge and Winter Park — Niehues’ work is now being accorded deep respect.
James Niehues’ map of Breckenridge Ski Area.
This year his works will be showcased in a coffee table book, and already there is proof of how much it is valued. A crowdfunding effort originally intended to generate $8,000[cq comment=”CQ”] to test the market and defray some of the publishing costs has raised more than $590,000.[cq comment=”CQ”] It also helped that people who gave larger donations were treated with not only the book but deal-sweeteners such as signed posters.
“It’s just so gratifying to see the response,” said Niehues, 73.[cq comment=”CQ”] “When we hit our goal of $8,000, everybody was elated. Then it hit $20,000, then $50,000, and it just keeps going.”
The working title of the forthcoming book is “James Niehues: The Man Behind the Map,” and it will be published this summer with almost 200[cq comment=”CQ”] examples of his work, a behind-the-scenes look at how he creates the trial maps, and his own back story.
Defining a genre
The idea for the book came from a fan Niehues had never met.
“I reached out to Jim and said, ‘Hey, I’d love to get a copy of your coffee table book, and if you don’t have one, I’ll help you put one together,’ ” said Todd Bennett,[cq comment=”CQ”] an executive in the entertainment industry who lives in California. “That’s how it started. The fact that he picked me to help him share his story and his legacy is something I do not take lightly. This is a story that will never be told again, where you have one guy who inadvertently cornered the market in a fiercely independent industry.”
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The overwhelming response to the Kickstarter campaign is an indication of what his work has meant to skiers across the U.S. for the last three decades. Once described by The New York Times as “Rembrandt of the Ski Trail,” Niehues defines the genre as did two predecessors from Colorado, Hal Shelton and Bill Brown.[cq comment=”CQ”]
“He carried on an art form that was done by those men,” said John Fry,[cq comment=”CQ”] a prominent ski magazine writer and editor who is a member of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. “His art really became an integral part of the ski experience for millions of people in the U.S.”
In fact, Niehues got his start in the genre by taking on projects Brown gave him in the late 1980s. The first one was an inset for an area of the Mary Jane trail map that Brown had been hired to do. Brown, who had started as a protege of Shelton, was ready to do something else. Niehues was working as a graphic artist at the time.
Ariel photographs have been a big part of my process. They are invaluable tools and references to my final art. Can you guess the mountain with the right @ handle? pic.twitter.com/QrlXqxxlEl
— JamesNiehues (@JamesNiehues) December 19, 2018
“Bill was more interested in shooting narrow-gauge railroad trains and wanted to move on,” Niehues said. “I walked in looking for a job, and I walked out with a career.”
Niehues reckons he has drawn maps for 194[cq comment=”CQ”] resorts. Because ski areas need new maps when they add terrain, he figures he has painted 350[cq comment=”CQ”] different ski maps, including insets and multiple renderings of the same areas. He says he has painted “four or five” versions of California’s Heavenly Valley, for example, the same for The Canyons in Utah.
But if ski areas aren’t adding trails, there isn’t much need for updated trail maps.
“You can kind of paint yourself out of the market,” Niehues said.
How it started
James Niehues was photographed at his in-home studio on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. He began painting ski maps some 30 years ago and has done work for many mountains throughout North and South America as well as for mountains in New Zealand and Australia.
Niehues grew up on farm west of Grand Junction, 12[cq comment=”CQ”] miles from the Utah border. When he was 13[cq comment=”CQ”] years old, he was stricken by nephritis (an inflammation of the kidneys) and was bedridden for months. He already had shown an interest in drawing, so his mother bought him a painting set to help him pass the time.
“I laid on the couch painting oils,” Niehues said. “Just copied pictures out of magazines.”
That was in 1959.[cq comment=”CQ”] After high school he briefly attended Colorado Mesa University and then served in the Army from 1965 to 1969,[cq comment=”CQ”] stationed in Berlin. His career in graphic arts began in Grand Junction in 1970,[cq comment=”CQ”] and he moved to Aurora in the mid-1980s. He started painting trail maps in 1987.[cq comment=”CQ”]
Niehues owes a lot to Shelton and Brown, both of whom are deceased.
“Hal was quite a character,” Niehues said. “Just a magnificent painter. He’s better than I will ever be. He had a different style, but certainly a superior painter. As was Bill Brown.”
If Shelton was a role model for Niehues, Brown was a mentor.
“We never talked about the nuts and bolts, but more the psychology of painting,” Niehues said. “He’d tell me, ‘You’ve got to paint these as if you’re down there skiing on them, and the colors that you’re seeing there.’ That has lasted with me.”
James Niehues painting in the tree shadows on the 2016 Alta map image.
Niehues learned to ski while he was learning how to paint trail maps. One of his first assignments was the Alta ski area in Utah, where he discovered how rudimentary his ski skills really were.
“I’d had enough skiing that I could get down the hill,” Niehues recalled. “I was probably a beginner at that time. We went up and started skiing down. The night before they’d had about 6 inches of snow, and that was really hard for me to handle. I was falling all the time. The instructor jokingly said, ‘You’d think the guy that painted ski maps could ski.’ It took me forever to get down.”
Niehues starts the process of creating a trail map by photographing the mountain from different angles from an airplane. “I have a pilot, of course,” he said. From his aerial photos, he begins the creative process by sketching the mountain in pencil with all the trails and physical features he wants to include. In the pencil sketch, which takes about a week to draw, timber on the slopes is represented by a bunch of squiggly lines.
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A post shared by James Niehues (@jamesniehues) on Sep 24, 2018 at 6:02am PDT
After the ski area approves the accuracy of his sketch, he uses it as a guide for the painting — usually in watercolors — which will include individually painted trees that are accurately rendered. He doesn’t paint evergreens where there should be aspens, or vice versa. Ski areas take his finished products and add the graphics indicating trail names and lifts.
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Turning three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional artistic representation requires some tricks of the trade. Shadows, for example, help indicate steeper areas.
“It’s very important that we get the shadow right,” Niehues said. “That’s part of tricking the eye into believing that it’s true. You’ve got to keep everything relative. The skier skiing down it doesn’t have the advantage I have of that view. So, as he’s skiing around the mountain looking at this, I have to remember the terrain he’s looking at and what will guide him around.”
Calling himself “just a Colorado farm boy” who became a self-taught artist, Niehues finds it immensely rewarding that people use his art across the U.S. The reception to the book project astonishes him.
“How can you be more gratified?” Niehues said. “You can’t. It’s just phenomenal. What I dreamed would be a good book is proving to be a good book before it’s even printed.”
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