Aerial View: The Art of James Niehues

If you’ve been skiing in the past decade, you’ve probably seen glimpses of artist James Niehues’s work. Best known for creating the intricate designs and paintings seen at ski resorts and on their brochures, among many other places, Niehues paints timeless pieces of art that we can only describe as incredible.


I grew up in western Colorado with mountains and canyons near to our farm in Loma. We worked hard in the fields and with livestock but we also hunted and fished, enjoying the great outdoors. The Colorado River was just a few miles away and my Dad had a small boat that we would take down the river to explore the sandstone canyons. Grand Mesa at 10,000 feet was a couple of hours drive.


When I was in the 9th grade I came down with Nephrites and spent 3 months in bed. I had always had an interest in art and drawing so Mom bought me an oil painting set. A bit messy, but I could prop myself up with pillows and paint landscapes from magazines to pass away the long hours resting to regain my health. I became pretty good and by my senior year I was recognized as the class artist.


 Long Peaks by James Niehues


I took art classes at the local junior college. To help get through school I worked for a garage-based ad agency where I learned the basics of the graphic side of art by laying out and pasting up ads and brochures for printing. He had a project for a hunter’s map of the region around Grand Junction. This was my first introduction to maps and I became hooked. I really enjoyed the process it involved, connecting the dots, if you will.

After several years it was obvious I would be drafted for military service so I enlisted and served 4 years. Upon returning from the service I took on a job in a print shop and learned the basics, becoming an offset pressman. The person that had the garage based agency had been hired by a local manufacturer to handle all their graphic and advertising needs in-house. I reconnected with him and was hired to do the graphics which included ink drawings of their products and brochure paste-ups. After several years I would be responsible for starting the in-house print shop and print all the instruction manuals and some of the brochures and sales pieces.

 Paddy’s Beach by James Niehues


After seven years I left the company to freelance. Then joined an advertising agency and soon became a partner responsible for the graphics. But I also handled all the advertising needs for several clients and as time went by I realized this was not the direction I wanted to pursue. A great many things changed, I remarried and our combined family now included my two sons and her son and daughter.

Crested Butte by James Niehues


We relocated to Denver, and I worked odd graphic positions in the print field. Eventually I met up with Bill Brown, the ski map artist at the time. I was hoping it would lead to a job helping him but as it turned out he was looking to pursue another interest, video. Upon seeing my work he saw my potential and offered to help me along if I was interested in painting ski maps. I was overwhelmed but elated to have this opportunity and at the age of 40, I started a new career.

The process for each map starts with reference material. Aerial photography is a vital sources of information such as the undulation and steepness of the slopes; locations of rocks, cliffs, deciduous or conifer trees, lifts and buildings. The aerials are shot at different altitudes to show different perspectives, high to look down into the trees and low to show the horizon and slope angles.


 Alyeska by James Niehues


I visit the area, charter a small plane and personally photograph the resort. In a lot of cases the resort is small and the budget becomes a factor. In that case I will instruct an employee at the ski area how to shoot the aerials with altitudes and perspectives. The sketch is next, which is drawn full size (30×40” for a large resort) with all the detail shown, including the shadows of the trees.

Once this is approved by the client I will project this image onto the prepared Gesso illustration board to get all the detail exactly as sketched. The Gesso base allows the medium to stay on the surface which means the watercolor paint can be lifted easily and repainted as new terrain or amenities are added in the future.


 Breckenridge Conceptual Trail Map Sketch by James Niehues


The watercolor is opaque gouache which allows for highlights to be added over another color. However, the first paint to be applied is an airbrushed acrylic for the sky. I then change the medium to the gouache to airbrush the snow’s surface. The brush takes over from here to first paint in the shadows of the trees, then the rock features and roads.

The next step is to paint in the forest and move on to the buildings. Once complete, a proof is sent out and small changes can still be made. I will supply a 300 MB file to the client for their use in trail maps, literature and electronic media.

My career has taken me to places that I had only dreamed about when growing up, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii and Canada as well as western and eastern states. I don’t keep track but I only visit about a third of the resorts I paint. Usually, I will visit the larger more complex resorts to get an onsite understanding of what needs to be done to best portray it.

Perhaps the most exotic trip was to Turtle Island, Fiji. This all-inclusive resort has 14 bures so only 14 couples are on the island at any one time. With as many secluded and remote beaches a couple can reserve the entire beach for the day with an exquisite lunch.


 Lone Eagle Peak by James Niehues


Today the computer has become the new tool to visually portray images but I would suggest that the old standard remains the most creative. A view of a multifaceted resort with slopes that are hidden from any one view has to be manipulated in many ways to get all ski runs on a flat piece of paper, and to do it in a way that seems credible to the viewer, the skier on the slopes.

All lengths and connections must convey the actual experience. The human mind remains the most flexible in this regard. And the presentation of hand-painted landscapes is much more natural than the “office look” of computer generated images. I can produce many textures and a wide range of color in a single brush stroke, none of which are exactly alike…sort of like nature.


Catalooche by James Niehues


My Imagekind collection is presenting all my trail map images as art prints. I add lift lines, elevations and names of bowls or features to show clearly the structure of the resort. This image is clean without the clutter of the names of all the runs, symbols and lines of a trail map. The prints are also reproduced as I intended them to be, with the color, contrast and relative dimension I painted into them.
So many times the resort’s personnel decide to get creative on their own and change these elements. I am proud to offer them, representing not only my work but also the resort, in a form to be enjoyed on someone’s wall as a work of art.


 Yellowstone National Park by James Niehues


I recently announced my retirement but when an inquiry from an interesting project comes in I get excited about how to best portray the resort. After all, my job is my passion and I miss the challenge. Today I only take on a few projects a year whereas; I produced 15 to 20 a few years ago. When not producing these projects I am now turning to oil painting, right back to the beginning many years ago while recovering flat on my back!
The jobs have taken me to some of the most dynamic scenery in the world and I have thousands of photographs to work from. Hundreds of scenes that I want to paint…and most assuredly not enough time left to paint them all. My wife and I are finding more time to enjoy RV’ing. We love the Oregon Coast visiting it yearly…and I each time I take numerous photos, visualizing landscapes I hope to get to… right after my next trail map!


 Blue Lagoon by James Niehues


Thanks, James! Be sure to check out more of James’s work on Imagekind.