EpicSki › Interview and Experiences Articles › Epicski Interview With James Niehues

EpicSki Interview with James Niehues


James "Jim" Niehues is the creator of a great number of the trail maps for ski resorts around the world. I recently was privileged to chat with him and interview him on September 14th, 2016. The following interview has a mix of questions that I posed to Jim as well as those submitted by the EpicSki community; the user who asked the question is tagged at the end of each question, the non-tagged questions were mine. 



When did you start making trail maps? 

It was in 1987/88 when I was 40 years old. Back when I was in college I had worked for a fellow with a graphic design shop in his garage, he had a hunter's map that I did some work with; that was my first experience with map making. 


Had you always worked as an artist or with graphics?

I've always been into it to some degree. After I came back from the Army I worked as an offset pressman and later got into the dark room and graphics in that area. Later I started working for an aftermarket automotive instrumentation company. I started doing black and white pen drawings of their instruments and different things. Then I got into in-house printing, I was in charge of the printery for the company for a few years. Then I went out on my own as a freelancer. I met up with Jim Caden, an ad-man in NYC and we formed the Caden Niehues ad agency. I spent about seven years in each place, then around 40 decided to go out on my own again. It was hard to make a living in Grand Junction doing illustration work so I moved to Denver and met Bill Brown and that lead to the trail maps. 


How many different resort maps have you painted?

I can't really remember the exact number now, I'd need to look it up. [His Facebook page it says that it is more than 240 in ten different countries, he thinks that number is still pretty accurate.] 


Do you ski? @Stranger

Yes! I used to anyway. I really didn't start to ski until I got into the trail map business. I learned to ski in Europe when I was in the Army; I was from Colorado but had never skied before that. I got up in the mountains of Austria and thought I was pretty hot. I got back home and went up on Powder Horn. The easiest way down was real narrow and twisty. I could only traverse and do a quick turn. Finally I just took my skis off and walked down because I was falling all the time. I did eventually learn to ski and I'm a solid intermediate skier. 


What were your most enjoyable projects? @jack97

That's a hard one to really come up with. The New Zealand jobs were enjoyable because I didn't have to paint a lot of trees. Anything that has some high terrain, right now I'm working on Breck, there's some high terrain and treeless areas there. I can get in and work on the slopes and really, you know, make an effort to showing it as it really is not just a sunny side and shady side.


Crystal Mountain


I really enjoyed Crystal Mt. in Washington too. All of them are enjoyable, I just enjoy all of them. About a year ago I was going to retire, I sent an email out to several clients that I wanted to work with and told them if you want a Niehues illustration you better order it because I'm going to retire. But then a project like Breck comes in and I get all excited and I can't turn it down. So I guess I'm still working. Actually I don't work, I paint and I enjoy it so it's not work. 


I see on your Facebook page that you do a lot of fly overs, do you also hike/ski the trails or are you pretty much basing what you do from aerial imaging?

There's just an awful lot of information from up high. I'll start up high, then drop down to maybe 500 feet above the summit to get some more detail. Then drop down to mid-mountain and photograph the lower half of the mountain. Early on I would ski and try to get a feel for it, but everyone would probably be surprised to find out how few of the mountains I've skied.


Do you do those flyovers in winter or summer?

I prefer to do it in winter when there is snow, but sometimes a resort will commission a new map for the upcoming season in July and I just have to work with what I can get. The areas out east that are all below treeline and it's designated runs and no real open slopes are not too hard to do with summer material. You get out west and it is really difficult to get the slope right without snow on the ground. 


What is the most difficult map you've ever painted?  @dwoof2

Park City Mountain Canyons, the new one I just did. There are so many slopes in just one view. Another hard one early in my career was Heavenly getting it all in one view. Alta was another difficult one. It was one of my first ones and I was trying to convince them to split the mountain in half along the ridge line, flatten it out. I'm glad they decided not to do it, it stretched my imagination and I twisted things in a few ways and got it done.



Park City/Canyons


What kinds of mountain features are the most challenging to depict on the map? @river-z

I think the structure of the trail system itself. There are very few mountains where just one perspective is perfect. You have to twist the mountain and try to keep things relative to each element. I try to ski it in my mind and visualize it if I skied from this point to this point how far would it be, what can I stretch and not stretch and still have it credible. It's definitely showing all the ski runs on one piece of paper. 


I know that representing the mountain's proportions the way a single photograph does can lead to problems.  Some trails simply won't show up.   A photograph, while "true," will often show trails disappearing over a rise or around a bend.  Other unacceptable things happen as well; the pitch looks too steep or flat, relative sizes of trails appears wrong, and so on.  The artist must make adjustments to squeeze all the trails in, to get their relative sizes to make sense, and to make the whole trail map look believable.  The end result should look as if the artist told the truth and only the truth, without altering anything, even though a lot has actually been altered.  How hard is it to make this work? What kind of things we might not know about do you need to do to get the results you want? @LiquidFeet

[Laughs] Well she has that pretty well summed up, I think that's pretty good. I think probably rolling back the horizon, a lot of these views I do when you see the horizon you see it from a more vertical viewpoint, that I'm looking down on the mountain. What I'll do though is make changes and things to get the runs to go down page. I don't like flat runs across the page, even shaded they don't always show up as being intermediate-difficult runs when they are. Rolling back the perspective is a device my predecessors used and you get a downward perspective of the mountain. Then towards the summit you show the horizon even though it never really would come into view. I can't really think of anything else that she hasn't covered, it's just a matter of in your mind, manipulating different parts in different ways. 


This brings up a point about computer generated maps. We've got grey matter that is very flexible. That just doesn't happen with computer programs. So just being flexible and thinking just a little twist here and there that will show that bowl and that run on the other side of the mountain. 


Obviously this will vary on the size of the resort, but how long does it take from start to finish to do a map?

On a small mountain once I have the photographs I can sketch it in a couple days and about a week to paint it. A large and difficult map the sketch can take up to a week and the painting about three weeks. Getting the approvals can slow down the process a bit. I'll get a target date from the resort and I'll say ok, I can make it with timely approvals. I want everyone to see it, but sometimes they just don't come through. 


When they want to make tweaks how do you handle it?

I send them a comprehensive sketch that is as detailed as the painting, but in pencil. For small tweaks I adjust it on the computer, for larger adjustments I may alter the pencil sketch. Once I get approval then I send them a proof of the final painting. I can make a lot of changes fairly quickly, but at that point it will be small changes. Take a tree out, change a shadow, small things. All my paintings I can go in years later to update, add buildings, or whatever. Sometimes I do it electronically, other times I do it on the original painting and have a new scan made. 


Jim Sketching Breckenridge onto Illustration Board



How did you arrive at the current style you use, and have you ever done different styles of trail maps? @dbostedo

My predecessors all thought it was a best technique to use and I just picked up on that and decided they probably knew something I didn't. I tried to mimick their style, of course it's not exactly the same, but using the same techniques like air brush and brush. I have done some sketchier type of stuff. One time for Vail on their backside across from the back bowl I did some sketch type stuff, but I didn't really care for it. For one resort they commissioned a job for a trail map, but in the meantime I did a quick color sketch to get them through until I was done. They ended up liking the sketch so much I lost the job! I didn't do that again! [laughs]


Is there a part of a map that you paint first and then build around it? What are the first and last parts of the map that you work on? @river-z

I start at the top and work down. Water color is very easy to accidentally drop water on or smudge. I start at the sky and work down. I'll do the sky, then the snow terrain, and the tree shadows. Then I'll do the details like the cliffs and the trees from top to bottom. Finally the roads and the structures. 


Painting trees has got to be the most tedious part of the process.  Do you have any shortcuts or special brushes to crank trees out? @SpikeDog

Nope, just a small brush. I paint them individually. Hal Shelton and Bill Brown used sponges and go in and produce textures. I tried it, but I wasn't really good at it so I went back to the brush. Each tree has at least two brush strokes to it, a highlight and a shadow.


Ever put Easter egg into a map like your favorite car or something like that? 

No, but I've had some requests. Purgatory had a kids program with these palm trees around the mountain. Wherever they saw a palm tree there was something their for kids. So they wanted me to paint in palm trees. They didn't show up very good, I wasn't going to make them very big. [Chuckles]


You're nominally retired, but still quite active. "What is the 'retirement' part of your retirement?" @sibhusky 

We have a small coach and we like road trips. We like to get out, especially to the West coast. We just back from a trip out to Washington and back through Montana. Any place with nice scenery. 


Do you have an apprentice or are you training someone to take over for you? @dwoof2

Well there's a fella right now--Rad Smith--that's taken an interest in it. He has done some very good computer graphics for trail maps. One of the first one's I'd seen of his was Moonlight. I saw the image and it was kinda small and thought that doesn't look like mine. I got to looking at it and realized, I'll be darned they've got a new map, they're not using mine anymore. It was Rad. Of the images out there he probably does the best computer image. 


I got a call from him about a year ago that he said "I'd just like to paint like you do because I can't do it all on the computer like I thought I could". He's got a full time job, but he comes around sometimes. He does it on the side, evenings and weekends. What he does is coming along, I think he'll be good if he continues it and jumps in and does it. I'm hoping that he will, I help him along as much as I can. I'd like to see hand painted maps continue. 


Did you ever meet Hal Shelton or Bill Brown? Did they train you? @hirustler

Yeah in the very first part of my career I met Bill. He told me you should go over and meet Hal he'd love to see you. So I called up Hal and went over; terrific guy, he was a speaker and spoke of many things. He was very charismatic, very helpful and showed me a lot of things he did. 


Jim with Bill Brown in May 2016


I only got to chat with them, I never observed them painting. I'd visit with Bill a while, or if I had a question I could ask him. The first trail map I did was the first time I used water color. I grew up painting with oil; I'd done a bit of water color, but not serious. It was quite a feat for me. That first image the backside of Mary Jane at Winter Park. That little inset took me three weeks. I'd get the values not quite right and had to go back and tweak it. My pallete wasn't quite right. 


Did you ever think about doing the maps in oil?

I did. Snow Country Magazine asked for oil paintings. It turned out looking a lot like my watercolors. I got into the details and couldn't set it aside. I have done several others, like Loon Mountain in NH. Other than that I did one for a Cat Skiing outfitter for an operation outside of Crestted Butte called Scrapper Ridge, that was an oil painting. 


Loon Mountain


Have you considered a coffee table book? @jimdh

Ever since the tenth year yes. I'd love to do it, I've just never found a publisher. I haven't seriously researched it, but I should. [Jim and I chatted for a bit about ways to make it happen and he promised to let me know if and when he does make one.] 


How has map making changed since the Shelton and Brown era? I.e. how much technology do you use? @hirustler

[Laughs] There wasn't any technology then! You'd just get a four color separation from a camera. Whenever I would make a sketch, I'd go to a blueprinter and have a blueprint made and send it off to a client, snail mail both ways. I'd trace it through the blue print onto an illustration board, so the blue print needed to be full size. Then I'd take a photo with film and mail it. Then I'd make changes and they'd pull an 8x10" transparency where a scan would be made into four colors.


Today there is Google Earth. I can get a pretty good idea of the mountain before I get there. Of course everything is digital so I send the proofs by email so it's much quicker. Then it goes direct to the photo lab where they make 100 Megapixel scans. It's changed a great deal. It changes how I approach my color, I change more colors today than I did before. Just communication. I used to send out brochures or mailings, send posters in tubes to ski areas. Today I have a website. 


Have you ever considered switching over to a digital medium instead of hand drawn? @dbostedo

Never [laughs]. Technology is nice and good and dramatic and impressive, but I can draw and paint as fast or faster than on a computer. It's just a different tool and I feel like hand work is more flexible. Especially working with color and combining colors, every stroke is somewhat different which makes a more natural rendering.


What do you see as the future of trail maps? @TexSkier

Regrettably going to digital. 


What do you perceive to be the greatest drawbacks and positive features of each type of map: paper vs electronic maps? @TexSkier

The trail map is probably the most used and most recognizable piece of information a resort has, it is kinda like their logo. It's theirs, individually theirs. They use it not only as a map, but also on their site and in promotions. The trail map is used sitting in a bar afterwards reminiscing. It's not just getting you down the mountain, it's their outdoor recreational kind of image. I feel a computer image is reminiscent of the office, it's not really showing the outdoors, it doesn't have that feel to it. Sure it can get them down the mountain, but it doesn't have that outdoors feel. I think if a skier had a choice they'd choose mine over digital.  


by Tyler Wenzel




Comments (8)

This is really interesting.  Glad it came together and appreciate the opportunity for the community to ask questions.
Great interview.  Thanks to all.
Great job Tyler. Very interesting.
The man loves his work!
The Breck map referenced in the interview is now in use this year. It is a great map. He REALLY improved on the previous map in terms of how it reflects the actual terrain. Something special about that guy's brain.
Great interview, very interesting.
EpicSki › Interview and Experiences Articles › Epicski Interview With James Niehues