James Niehues: Ski Map Maker Extraordinaire

James Niehues: Ski Map Maker Extraordinaire

Even in today’s high tech world of computerized maps and apps, there’s nothing like holding a ski map in your hand and studying the mountain. Typically best reviewed over a hot chocolate or a frosty beer, it’s always fun to trace with your finger where you have been and/or where you plan to go tomorrow. And yes, ski resort maps still make for wonderful souvenirs that you tuck into your luggage and tote home along with many treasured memories of the mountain you just skied or rode.

Map Geek recently discovered the main man behind these maps and I wanted to let you know how incredibly prolific he is and how there’s actually a book in the works that will feature a compilation of his paintings. Look in the corner of ski maps from world-renowned resorts such Telluride, Steamboat and Vail and you’ll see the signature of James Niehues, an artist that has skillfully and accurately represented some two hundred ski resorts in his paintings.

Yes, it all begins with paintings. Thank goodness! Computer-produced maps just don’t have the same charm as ones done by hand. (We know about that here at Discovery Map.) “By 2000, many resorts had turned to computer images but by 2010 most had returned to hand-painted ones,” says Mr. Niehues. “I’d like to think it’s because hand-painted images are more intuitive; they present their product, an experience in the great outdoors, in a better light,” he continues. “The freedom an artist has with conventional paints and brushes allows more creativity and interpretation of the slopes. I don’t think anyone that’s out on the slopes really wants a reminder of the office and a computerized image is just that. There isn’t a program out there that does what I do when I conceive the layout of the trails. Many different manipulations of space come into play to get all slopes on one flat sheet of paper, and make it look perfectly normal to the skiers on the slope navigating their way around the mountain.”

And how about all those painterly trees, snow-white slopes, cloud mist, rocky cliffs and so much more that Mr. Nieuhues adds with such loving detail? It’s almost crazy that he can make such cartography so incredibly accurate and homespun. Perhaps this is why his works of art, his ski maps, have become so beloved by so many.

Indeed, a recent Kickstarter campaign raised a mountain of money for a book devoted to the resort depictions of James Niehues. I’m sure it will garner premier placement on many ski aficionados’ coffee tables–not only for the beauty of the illustrations inside but also for the opportunity to review and revisit some of people’s favorite resorts in the country. Slated for release in the summer of 2019, it’s to be entitled, James Niehues: The Man Behind the Map. “I am excited about this book because it will show all the resorts I’ve painted in one collection,” says Mr. Niehues. “It will show all the originals in the colors I’ve chosen for each resort without the layers of names and symbols, which tend to take over the effect the painting has on the viewer.Many times the resort will change the colors, and even the vertical relationship to horizontal dimensions. Now people will see them as I intended them to be viewed.”

Whoa, that book sounds really cool. Maps–there’s so much that goes into making them that unless you’re a map geek you might not think about these things. From creativity to accuracy to artistic expression and lots of twists and turns along the way, it’s no wonder maps–no matter how tattered and torn–become treasured keepsakes from all kinds of travels.

Go to www.OpenRoadSki.com to find out more.


Thank you to Lindsay Pierce Martin for the photos and to James Niehues for his paintings and sketches included in this story.

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