Learning from a Legend

For James Niehues, a legend in the ski world for his birds-eye maps, his artwork is much more than renditions of a place. They combine panoramic views of the best ski hills in the world with a first-hand experiential component, a continuous view from both close up and far away.

It’s clear just looking at these maps that Niehues loves the work he’s done over the last thirty-five years. “The trail map promotes the area and shows what one would experience there,” he says. “That’s where the beauty comes in –it’s not just lines pointing the way, it’s more than that.”

Over his 35-year career, he’s created trail maps for more than 200 ski resorts spread across five continents. His body of work put him into the US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2019. In fact, his maps symbolize how countless skiers and riders of all ages and abilities make memories while doing what they love most, exploring the terrain of the most iconic on-snow areas and resorts.

Niehues’ maps decorate the walls of many skiers. Show his maps to anyone, and they will know his work. So, getting out of the trail map business took time. Niehues represents two generations of niche artists (Hal Shelton and Bill Brown) that knew and understood skiers and skiing, artists with the talent to condense an expanse of towering mountains onto a comprehensible two-dimensional piece of paper.

“I just loved the work and the challenge. It’s a very creative approach that many people don’t see. Making mountains credible –whenever you turn, slopes can be viewed. I do a lot of stretching and turning, yet you want it to be natural to a skier. It doesn’t look like it’s been distorted, but really there’s a lot of distortion.”

Over a period of months, Niehues photographed, visualized, sketched, and finally painted each ski area by hand. The research he did and his incredible ability to see the mountains from a bird’s eye view made him into a legend.

“I have always enjoyed the challenge of fitting an entire mountain on a single page,” Niehues says. “Mountains are wonderful puzzles, and I knew if I painted with the right amount of detail and care, they would last. A good design is relevant for a few years, maybe even a decade. But a well-made map is used for generations.”

After 35 years Niehues decided to turn the reins over to Rad Smith of Rad Smith Design and Illustration, a digital mapmaker who as an artist learned cartography through an environmental consulting firm.

“I went to school for art and have always been a painter and illustrator,” Rad Smith says. “About the same time Jim painted the new Big Sky map, I read a few interviews with Jim, and he mentioned he was looking at retirement but didn’t have anyone to pass on that tradition to.”

It didn’t take Rad too long to reach out with an email to Jim. This was in 2015.

“He sent me a quick reply and was aware of my digital maps but thought I was looking for help in that area. I was quick to respond back that I have a long history of doing digital work, but I still love to paint and would love to learn whatever he was willing to share about his process. And that kicked off a great friendship and mentorship.”

It wasn’t a classic apprenticeship, but Smith considers Niehues a mentor.

“He doesn’t stand over my shoulder teaching me, but we talk over the phone and Zoom,” Smith says. “He gave me a lot of direction early on. He recommended me to people who were inquiring and has been an incredible source of work for me. I’m constantly getting recommendations from him.”

Rad studied fine art and graphic design in school, with a traditional education in those fields. Then he bounced around with graphic design jobs in the outdoor industry. Twenty years ago, Rad started working with an environmental consulting firm. There he found a niche for graphic maps – falling somewhere between analytical mapmaking and design – but it seemed that maps were popping up throughout his career.

“I was doing more and more oblique (perspective maps) as opposed to flat- planned view maps,” Rad explains. “With that work I was asked to do some driving maps for the Moonlight Basin Ski Area that would be used for the rental property maps. They wanted maps that looked like ski maps. I was working in a digital environment when the same client needed a new ski map for Moonlight Basin.

Rad thought he’d take a digital approach, but make it look more traditional (like a Niehues map). It was well received, but that was when he realized he was spending a lot of time in front of a computer.

“I love Niehues’ work, and I knew he was painting traditionally,” Rad says. “My maps did not have that organic look and feel of Jim’s ski maps.”

 That was when he reached out to Jim Niehues and came full circle, rediscovering his love for painting.

“We came up with good piece I could work on, and he could advise on,” Rad says. “He walked me through the transition from digital to paint, using gouache, like Niehues does. That was slower for me to learn. He helped me through that first painting. The biggest accomplishment was just finishing it. Painting all those trees!”

Shortly after that Niehues sent Rad his first recommendation, a small ski area in China that hadn’t been built yet.

“That was such a trial by fire for me,” Rad recalls. “With that first commission, he gave me all the assurances and confidence I needed to get the project finished and looking good.”

As Niehues continued to get more work, he ended up calling Rad telling him to, “get up to speed on this because there’s a lot of work coming down the pike.”

Rad’s process is very much in line with his mentor’s process. “It’s an intuitive painter’s process, sharing ideas with the client along the way.”

There are the regular milestones, starting with a thumbnail line drawing. Once that gets approved, he projects it onto a full-size sheet of vellum (20 x 30 up to 30 x 40) to create a detailed pencil sketch, which builds off the thumbnail, showing trees, sheds, tree shadows, and buildings.

“It allows me to figure out the shadows to get the look and feel of that ski area which I then share with client, then I project it onto illustration board, continuing the map painting with gouache on a gesso-prepared surface. Like Jim, I paint from top bottom, left to right, to avoid smearing.”

 One whole map takes about 6-8 weeks or about 100-150 hours.

“Jim has been an open book and shared everything I asked, even about the specific colors he uses,” Rad says. “He saved me a lot of time. He’s created such a legacy. It’s a precedent they’ve created that I hope to follow. His shoes are so big. If I can continue the tradition he’s created and carry on that distinct look and feel, that’s a huge success.”