By Jen Schmidt
Resort illustrator James Niehues captures Tahoe’s great ski mountains.
Early in his career, alpine resort and panoramic illustrator James Niehues found himself on the slopes of Alta during a project. Although he is a native Coloradoan, his still-developing skiing technique and five inches of fresh left him a little overwhelmed. “You’d think a guy who does trail maps would know how to ski,” said his frustrated instructor. Good-natured and honest about his ability level, Niehues had no comeback, but the obvious answer would have been, “While you were growing up skiing, I was growing up painting.”
Niehues’ love of painting began with a set of oil paints given to him by his mother in the ninth grade. He suffered from a kidney ailment and was instructed to lie flat on his back for three months, so she knew he would need something to occupy his time. “I had a teacher that’d come out and sit by my bed and teach me so I wouldn’t fall behind in school,” said Niehues. “My father wasn’t too happy about [my painting] because he didn’t think I could make a career out of it. But the one thing that he gave me was a strong work ethic.”
Growing up on a farm in Grand Junction, Niehues spent his summers painting and photographing in the mountains. He never did learn to ski, though, until he served in the Army in Europe during the late ’70s. Upon his return home, Niehues held various jobs—running a printing press, working in the design department for an auto parts manufacturer, even becoming a partner at an advertising agency before packing up and moving to Denver. It was there in 1986 that he met Bill Brown, who was the big name in trail map painting at the time and was looking to retire.
Brown gave Niehues’ his first ski resort assignment—painting the backside of Mary Jane on Winter Park. “I was trying to mimic Bill Brown’s style, plus the fact that I had never worked in watercolor before, so it took me a long time do to that first one,” he says. Nevertheless, Brown liked Niehues’ work and sent him on his way with a letter of recommendation; soon Niehues’ art was featured as a full-page spread in Snow Country Magazine.
To date, Niehues has painted more than 300 illustrations for ski areas, tourist bureaus, golf communities and the like throughout the United States and worldwide including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Japan, Korea, China, and Serbia.
At the beginning of a new project, he prefers to travel to the site so he can aerially photograph it himself. Throughout the production process, Niehues uses those several hundred photographs, any available topographical maps, and even Google Earth to create an “accurate” and visually stunning illustration. Since it is often hard to “capture” a huge ski resort from one perspective, he must cleverly mix perspectives while still preserving the realism of the over-all map.
It usually takes him three days to complete a full-size (typically 30×40″) sketch that he then emails to the client for approval. From there, he makes changes and moves on to the final rendering, using gouache opaque watercolor on illustration board with a gesso undercoat to keep the paint from fully absorbing into the paper. Once the painting is complete, usually another ten days later, the client gets another proof that may or may not need edits. Finally, Niehues gets a transparency made that he scans, doing even more color correction and finishing touches in Photoshop.
This artist’s success can be traced to his ability to create an aesthetically pleasing, but spatially and relationally accurate, illustration. “It’s not always easy to get it all connected and have it look right. With each mountain, you have to work with the client to really capture what they want it—sometimes they want it to look steeper, sometimes they want to make it look a little easier,” says Niehues. “I always remember that the person I’m serving is the skier; I want you to visually ski every run when you look at this sketch.”
These days in Tahoe, you can’t toss a pole without touching a resort he has painted.
“I love the Tahoe area,” Niehues says. “I’ve done Heavenly four times; the recent one is more of a satellite view. I still go out and photograph it each time with a new direction.” Niehues is also excited when he mentions Squaw Valley USA, which he illustrated for the first time in 2008. Among his other Tahoe resorts are Tahoe Donner (Nordic and downhill), Boreal (one of his very first), Diamond Peak, Kirkwood, Northstar, Sierra-at-Tahoe, Sugar Bowl, Mt. Rose and Soda Springs. Still on his wish list are Homewood and Alpine Meadows.
“I never tire of it,” he says. “I’ve been doing it for almost 25 years now and I’m still excited about every job that I get. It’s always a challenge; it’s always solving a puzzle. What I want to do is come up with the absolute best illustration, so it stays around for a long, long time.”
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