Artist James Niehues works in colors — and mountains and ski lifts and runs

As a kid, Courtney Harkins had an eye for art and a talent for skiing. It was only natural, then, that she decorated the walls of her family’s ski condo with trail maps from ski resorts near and far.

“Every time we went somewhere, we’d get a ski map and mount it. And it was always there,” Harkins said, estimating 30 different illustrations lined the lodge’s walls. “And I never even thought about who drew it until this really came out.”

In Harkins’ hands was a large, white hard-bound book titled “The Man Behind the Maps: Legendary Ski Artist James Niehues.” Harkins had joined hundreds of art-appreciative powder hounds and curators of mountain cartography who lined up at Fisher Brewing Company on a Tuesday night to have Niehues sign their books, posters and ski maps. For up to an hour they waited to meet a man who had profoundly affected their lives, even if most didn’t know he existed until a year ago.

Niehues has been painting ski maps since 1987. His collection includes more than 350 views of resorts scattered around the globe, including almost every one in Utah. He toiled in near anonymity until last year, however, when his maps began showing up on Twitter. The illustrations were shared by ski industry insiders and ski bums alike, and his popularity snowballed. When a Kickstarter campaign for his book was launched in November, it reached its goal of $8,000 in four hours. Then Tuesday, the same day Niehues began his limited-stop book tour, news broke that he would be inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.

“All those maps are so well drawn, and you live off them and you never realize, oh, that might be some guy, like that's his job,”said Andrew Murray, a co-founder of the snow forecasting website OpenSnow, who waited in line with Harkins to buy a second copy of Niehues’ book. “You go through the book and you're like, oh, he drew that one and that one. Oh, he did all of them. No wonder.”

Utah as a canvas

Niehues’ draw locally no doubt has to do with how prolific he has been in Utah. He has painted maps for 12 of the state’s 15 resorts (13 if you count The Canyons) as well as regional views. In 1999, Ski Utah commissioned him to paint a panorama that included all of the state’s ski areas.

One of Niehues’ first projects was Brian Head, a smaller resort in Southern Utah. He took it on in 1987, the same year he got his start in the industry when his predecessor, Bill Brown, presented Niehues’ sketch of Colorado’s Mary Jane resort as his own. After the resort’s marketing department approved the drawing, Brown revealed it as Niehues’ work, and Niehues’ career painting ski maps took off.

Though he is a Colorado native and has painted ski areas around the world, including in New Zealand, Japan and Serbia, the resort Niehues estimates has depicted the most is The Canyons. Typically he draws a ski hill just once or twice, while making touch-ups every few years to reflect changes in lifts and territory. The Canyons, however, he estimates he painted anew four or five times, plus another when it was combined with Park City to make Park City Mountain Resort. The sheer size of that resort, he said, presented a considerable challenge.

(Photo courtesy of Open Road Ski Company) Ski map artist James Niehues' new book is called "The Man and the Maps," a collection of much of his ski resort map works.

Niehues also recalled the difficulty he had in incorporating Alta’s backside with the rest of the ski area back in 1991. One idea was to split the view down the middle of the ridge, but users would have to mentally transfer themselves from the top of the lift on one page to the top of the same lift on another page to see all of their terrain options, which wasn’t ideal.

“It was hard to portray in one view, and they didn’t want a second view,” Niehues said. “It was a real challenge to do that and give enough clarity and importance to all the areas. You’ve got to represent all the terrain well enough to be able to label it and make it understandable to the skier.”

Art steeped in detail

Niehues admits he’s “probably the poorest skier that’s ever been inducted” to the U.S Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. But making a ski hill navigable requires getting skis on the snow, so Niehues traverses every resort he paints. With most he also goes up in a plane, taking aerial photos from 2,000 feet above the summit, 500 feet above the summit, at mid-mountain and at the base. By the time he leaves the mountain, he said he usually has a good idea of how he will portray it. He then puts pencil to paper to create thumbnail sketches he submits to mountain personnel for review.

Later, Niehues uses a projector to trace important details onto an illustration board. He said that medium makes the colors more vibrant and, more importantly, makes it easier to erase things when resorts make changes years later. Finally, he starts adding details. That included the horizon and sky, as well as each miniature tree and tree shadow.

Niehues said he once tried a technique that would allow him to paint three trees at once, but he felt it didn’t give them enough shape and left the landscape looking muddy. It’s that kind of attention to detail that has kept Niehues in hot demand even as computer-generated maps become more complex and realistic.

David Amirault, a 20-year veteran of the ski industry marketing field, said resorts still turn to Niehues because of the way his maps make their users feel.

“His consistency is next level. It’s a warm and welcoming thing no matter what mountain you’re at,” Amirault said. "And he’s drawn the map. It’s a very specific artistic flare and talent he has that I believe is a lost art. Everything so hyper-focused on being a digital artist, where everything he creates is still in an analog world. ...

“He’s the ski industry’s Bob Ross.”

That’s why skiers and snowboarders everywhere decorate their cabins and bedrooms with Niehues’ work. It’s why two men on a ski trip from Snowbird to Whistler reached out to Niehues asking if they could buy a book of his maps and, upon discovering there wasn’t one, set out to make one. It’s also why hundreds of ski bums flocked to a brewery in the middle of Salt Lake City on a work night to pay $90 for a book and the pleasure of meeting its author.

They’re more than just maps, they’re pieces of art.