Famous ski artist James Niehues retires after 35 years painting maps of Cardrona, Colorado resorts

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James Niehues, the artist behind many of the world’s most iconic ski slope maps. Photo / Getty Images

If you’ve ever spent time on a ski slope, be it in America, Australia, or New Zealand, chances are, James Niehues was your guide.

At 75, the Coloradian artist is the talent behind more than 430 hand-painted maps used by more than 200 ski resorts around the world, including New Zealand.

Today, after 35 years, Niehues is hanging up his brushes, celebrating the end of an impressive career with a one-off show at the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame.

As a final contribution to the industry, Niehues will auction two of his most beloved original cards, Telluride and Snowmass, and donate all proceeds to the Museum and Hall of Fame.

Cartographer’s job is unusual, so it’s no surprise that Niehues stumbled upon it after moving from Grand Junction to Denver in 1987.

Working at a Denver printing house, Niehues met Bill Brown, a resort map artist who gave Niehues his first project as a map painter: a small trail map for Winter Park Resort. Niehues had a knack for the craft, Brown was ready to retire and the rest, as they say, is history.

The timing might have been perfect, but Niehues said his career was not just down to luck, but also his ability to see, and then capture, a mountain in its entirety.

Anyone who has seen its extremely detailed maps, with their distinctive pastel colors and minute detail, will no doubt agree.

I really like doing the mountains in New Zealand, because there are no trees there

Niehues begins each map with an aerial photograph of the mountain, ideally taken from a helicopter or from Google Earth. The mountain is then sketched onto a special parchment paper called vellum before details and color are added using airbrushes and watercolor paint.

A capable skier, Niehues learned in Europe during his time in the military, taking time off with friends to hit the Swiss slopes. The skill has served Niehues well in his career, as skiing a mountain has given him a better understanding of the boating experience.

According to Niehues, only two other artists did this particular work; The American Hal Shelton who pioneered the craft in the 1970s and his predecessor Bill Brown.

The word “artist” is used intentionally, as the three men consider the beauty and feel of paintings to be just as important as their function.

In 2018, Niehues immortalized three decades of work in a book called “The Man Behind the Cards”. The concept came to mind in the mid-90s after Niehues realized he would probably create enough works for a book, but said it only became a goal later in his life.

“I started to realize, I’m 72 now, so it’s time to start,” he said. Outside in December 2018.

Anyone who doubted the demand for such a book had only to look at its Kickstarter campaign. The project saw 5,156 backers pledge US $ 590,088 (NZ $ 853,332), breaking the record for the most supported art illustration project on the platform.

Vail is one of the countless ski areas that Niehues painted over the course of his career.  Photo / David Maunsell, Unsplash
Vail is one of the countless ski areas that Niehues painted over the course of his career. Photo / David Maunsell, Unsplash

From Breckenridge to Vail, Niehues painted more than a few world-class mountains, but told Outside he had a soft spot for tracks in New Zealand.

“I really like doing the mountains in New Zealand because there are no trees there,” he said.

The demand for work and the love of the craft drove Niehues back to the drawing board for longer than expected.

However, when he eventually hung up his pencils, he said Montana artist Rad Smith was a promising protege.

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