Meet the Man Who Paints Most of America’s Ski Maps

Your local mountain’s ski trail map was probably painted by James Niehues.

ski maps
James Niehues, the artist behind the iconic ski trail maps, recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to back his upcoming coffee table book of work. Niehues began painting the maps some 30 years ago. The campaign has now raised more than $500,000. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Denver Post via Getty Images

James Niehues never meant to be the United States go-to artist for ski maps, but, at age 72, here he is- successful Kickstarter campaign and all.

Niehues says he has the ability to see not part, but the entire mountain as a whole in one shot. His use of pastel colors give his maps a nostalgic feel.

The longtime graphic designer recently sat down with Outside Online to discuss how, over 30 years ago, a one-off job became a lifetime of creative work.

“It’s a puzzle to put together,” the artist revealed. “I struggled early on getting the back sides of mountains right. I’m constantly trying to get all the flow lines correct and running down the page. Resorts know what they want and need, but sometimes they want to show their mountain bigger than it is.”

But Niehues is the expert and he knows best. “My job is to bring it back to reality,” he said. “My favorite mountains are the ones where I can paint cliffs or rugged peaks and the mountains beyond. But I really like to do the mountains in New Zealand, because there are no trees there.”

An Army vet, Niehues love of skiing blossomed during his time in serving overseas in Europe. Taking leave for a quick ski trip to Switzerland was a regular occurrence

With his Kickstarter successfully funded, Niehues is excited to bring his skip maps to a broader audience with a new art book. “I think of the paintings as art instead of trail maps,” he told Outside Online. “I think a computer-generated map is a reflection of the office—it’s rigid. A hand-painted map reflects the outdoors. You ski to get into that environment.”

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