If you've ever found your way on the ski slopes, chances are you used Jim Niehues' work.
LOVELAND, Colo. — If you've ever found your way on the ski slopes, chances are you used Jim Niehues' work.
When his mother gave her teenage son an oil-painting set during his three-month, on- his-back bout with nephritis, she stirred an artist. Fifty years later, Niehues is the world's most prolific ski-map illustrator, having hand-painted more than 220 resort trail maps.
"You can always look at a trail map and tell it's his without looking for a name. You just feel like you are looking at the place," says Powderhorn ski area chief Steve Bailey, who recently enlisted Niehues to paint his area's trail map. "Jim is the Norman Rockwell of ski resorts."
After almost 25 years of illustrating snowy slopes, 63-year-old Niehues (pronounced NEE-hews) still spends weeks on each painstakingly sketched and water-colored painting. The modest studio in the basement of his Loveland home is lined with sliding cabinets stocked with hundreds of his maps and illustrations. He pulls out his favorites.
There's Idaho's now-dormant Tamarack, with snow-soaked trees awash in pink sunlight.
"Since it was the first new ski area in a long, long time, I thought the sunrise showed the dawning of a new area," he says.
Niehues doesn't just paint ski areas, although the millions of his trail maps distributed by resorts across the world are certainly the fount of his fame. He has done dozens of regional maps, illustrations of golf courses and resort villages and magazine-commissioned landscapes. Yosemite is one of his favorites, with misting waterfalls dotting the craggy park.
In the corner of his studio, tucked behind shelves of labeled shoe boxes holding thousands of his photos snapped during airborne reconnaissance that precedes each map, Niehues is working on a map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The painting is exploring his capability with the color green. There are few rocky outcroppings or peculiar peaks in the heavily treed park.
These days, Niehues is venturing into all sorts of regional maps, such as hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, 4x4 trails near Rangely and even underwater vistas at Turtle Island Resort in Fiji. Google, he says, with its satellite maps and instant imagery, is sapping demand for his ski maps.
"If you go out skiing, part of the enjoyment is the scenery. Just enjoying what the outdoors are all about," he says. "You don't get that from a computerized satellite image. I can get more variety with one brush stroke than any computer program."
And, to the delight of ski-resort operators, his maps always reflect the hill on its best day. No beetle-kill, packed parking lots or drought conditions in Niehues' maps.
"It's always the best snow of the year. It's always sunny and bright. There's a little frost on the trees, and the runs are looking great," says Mike Larson, who helped develop Beaver Creek, one of Niehues' first big gigs. "It takes a special touch to take something very complicated and simplify it down to something that is usable and guest-friendly."
Niehues' subtle use of shading depicts a run's steepness, helping make sure skiers don't find themselves in too-difficult terrain. Gladed runs are easily identifiable, where dark forests appear impenetrable.
Before sketching begins, Niehues gathers photographs and maps. He begins a pencil sketch, starting with obvious markers such as mountains and streams. Then he uses his aerial photographs to draw specific features and shaded terrain. Usually, the sketching takes about a week, and the painting can take up to three more weeks.
It was Dora, his wife of 26 years, who prodded Niehues to pursue his dream. He always loved to paint but, in raising four kids, had chosen the safest path toward income. Living near the farm where he grew up in Loma, Niehues worked in Grand Junction as an artist for an advertising firm. He owned a graphic-design shop. Then in the 1980s, he met Bill C. Brown, Colorado's legendary ski-map artist.
Brown took Niehues in and offered him a job painting Winter Park's Mary Jane. With four kids and a mortgage, Niehues would wake at 2 a.m. and labor over the Mary Jane map, painting for several hours before going to work as a designer of courtroom displays for attorneys. When Brown scaled back and Niehues landed a job painting Vail Mountain, he went all-in on ski-map illustrating.
While he has gotten better since those early days, he's not that much faster. As he leans closer into the Smoky Mountains map with what appears to be a two-bristle paint brush, he recalls the advice Brown offered as he began his career.
"Bill always said, 'Whatever you end up with, you have to live with for years,' " he says.
Since 1986, he has hand-drawn 358 maps and illustrations.
"If not for Jim Niehues, there would be very few trail maps available," said Jerry Friedlander, whose Vermont-based Artistic Ski Maps sells prints of Niehues' work. "Without him, there would be no ski-map industry."