James Niehues Creates Hand Painted Maps Of Ski Resorts And Now There’s A Book.

James Niehues in his studio, creating maps by hand. Credit: LA Times

If you’ve ever taken a second look at the resort trail maps you casually pick up and put in your parka pocket, you are most likely looking at a painting by James Niehues. James has created trail map art of over 200 resorts around the globe since 1988.  Instead of resorting to computer-created images, he paints by hand and the results are remarkably detailed and beautiful. How does he do it?

James combines the technology of cartography with the art of water colors to create the maps. He flies over an area, takes aerial photographs, studies topographic maps, then creates a simple sketch of the mountain scene. From there, he projects the image on a painting surface, filling in the details starting from the sky down to the base. 

Niehues’ trail map of Vail. Complex, broad, beautiful.

One of the biggest challenges is to show the back trails or bowls of mountain on the same map as the front side. Sounds like Picasso, right? He says it’s a puzzle he has to piece together.

James has been creating resort maps for three decades, taking over the role from Colorado’s Bill Brown, the only resort map artist at the time. Now in his mid-70s, James has anthologized his collection of over 200 maps into a coffee-table book, The Man Behind The Maps, available from Amazon for about $100.

He’s retiring from his one-man profession, passing the mantle to a younger protege. Clearly, his maps create a mood that you don’t get from computer graphics, and that’s the whole point.  Both approaches show you the way down, but James’ maps are create a “feeling” of mountains and the outdoors.

Here’s  a short video that tells James’ story. 



  1. kenneth a soule says:

    This man was on CBS Sunday Morning. Thanks for posting this I wanted his name.

  2. Cansnowplow says:

    The hand is mightier than the sword (computer)! An accomplished intermediate skier; truly the epitome of the senior skier. This is what I call hand/eye coordination. Absolutely talented depth and color. The clip was well done. I liked seeing the taking and how it was being used of his personal photographs taken while flying over. Like any cherished artist, each “map” probably takes over 1000 hours before James would say it is done. If it were me, I would need an unmanned drone flying continuously around the resort in order to get it right. Keen eye! Hawk Eye. Aye?

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