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The painter behind 300 ski maps

If you thought that all ski maps were now completely computer generated you will have overlooked the beautiful artwork of American James Niehues. For a quarter of a decade, 65-year-old James has been hand-painting panoramas of mountains and ski resorts, which in turn are reproduced into millions of pocket-sized maps. These are the maps that every skier and snowboarder uses to navigate their way around resorts in North America, Japan, Korea, China, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Serbia.

The recognisable look of a ski map

His style is distinctive, as any skier who has been to these countries on holiday will recognise. To create a map, James, of Colorado, first researches the area, checking satellite images on Google Earth, looking at existing maps, blueprints and photographs. Then, whenever possible, he visits the resort, taking photographs from the air while being flown over at various altitudes. He then paints from an aerial perspective, working to bring a wide network of mountain faces and runs into a single plane. After this, James starts to paint, first in gouache, which is an opaque watercolor, on a 30-by-40 inch illustration board. This method allows him to lift the color and update sections if resorts change over the years.

The painstaking art of ski maps

This art takes time. Small ski areas can take three days of painting, while large resorts might need 10 days, and regional areas may take three weeks. As you might expect, James, who has created some 300 maps during his career,  is not the greatest fan of computers. He says: “I’ll use a computer to adjust the colour or perspective on a nearly finished map. But I think that computer-generated maps lack character. Computers can't do what I can do. For example, computerised maps have cloned trees, all of them identical, while my tress are all different.” James still has some mountains that he'd like to paint. He dreams of travelling to the Oregon coast and the desert surrounding Moab, Utah, to paint the landscapes he's photographed over the years. Check out his interview with American news show CNN below: Big thanks to James for allowing us to use his illustrations in this blog - to see more of his works, check out