The Michelangelo of Snow

Cataloochee, North Carolina / James Niehues
Cataloochee, North Carolina / James Niehues

If you’ve herring-boned over to a trail map, or swished to a stop to take out your handy pocket map at a ski resort, you’ve probably seen the work of James Niehues, “the Michelangelo of snow,” but not even known it. For the past three decades, Niehues has painted the topographical trail maps that grace many of the major ski slopes in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He has created over 160, writes The Washington Post. Interestingly, Niehues only considers himself an intermediate skier.

His process for mapping a slope is intensive. He will fly in a Cesna plane to take aerial photographs. He told Cabinet magazine about his in-depth approach: “I’ll try and shoot the mountain from every angle possible, starting at about 4,000 feet over the summit of the mountain to get some very high altitude stuff, and then I’ll drop down and get more of the detail around the lower part of the mountain.”

He sometimes skis the mountain to get a “better feel for its features,” but admits he “has tried only about 5 percent of the resorts he has painted.”

He then paints each ski resort by hand in water color, painstakingly documenting every contour, trail, ski lift route, and, yes, every single tree.

Butternut, Massachusetts / James Niehues
Butternut, Massachusetts / James Niehues
Telluride, Colorado / James Niehues
Telluride, Colorado / James Niehues

He told Scout: “Hand painting offers more variety of expression in that each brush stroke is different, making each tree (which usually has the base shape, a shadow and a highlight) individual and natural. A ski resort trail map represents the great outdoors and the better this presentation portrays the natural vast scenery of the slopes the more inviting it is to the viewer.  I used to have a slogan that I used in my mailing to potential clients: ‘A quality trail map reflects a quality ski experience.’ A trail map must first be accurate, but a very large part of the equation is for it to be as beautiful as possible to entice the viewer.  I just haven’t seen any computer-generated images that do that better than a hand-painted image.”

For Niehues, the hardest slopes to depict are those that criss-cross multiple mountain faces, instead of just one. “The most challenging part of any multiple-faceted resort is moving all the elements so the entire system of runs can be shown in one view, without the viewer seeing any reason why it not just as it is portrayed!”

Killington, Vermont / James Niehues
Killington, Vermont / James Niehues

Niehues explained to The Washington Post that he “likes knowing that skiers take a piece of him in their pockets whenever they ski the mountains he has painted.” He said: “One of the more special things is that they come down the mountain and have a beer and open up the map and talk about their experiences and they’re reviewing my art.”

Smuggler's Notch, Vermont / James Niehues
Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont / James Niehues

See all of Niehues’ gorgeous maps at his website and purchase prints.

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