Meet the Artist Behind Breck’s Trail Map
You know that amazingly precise, highly detailed winter trail map?
It didn’t come from a machine.
By Shauna Farnell
Open Breck’s trail map and as an avid skier or snowboarder, you probably already view it as a deeply meaningful piece of art. But take a close look at this winter’s map. Seriously. Go to the “Mountain” tab right now and take a quick peek. It’s more beautiful than any map you’ve seen, right? There’s a reason for that.
James Niehues has been painting ski maps for nearly 20 years and although he has painted around 250 ski resorts all over the world, Breck has been on his radar for about a decade.
“The look of it sets a standard – all the trails below and the open skiing and bowl above. If there’s something that says skiing better, I don’t know what it is,” says the 72-year-old Colorado native. “I don’t do it justice. There’s no real way that an artist really can take that scene and the experience and capture it completely.”
But let’s face it, Niehues does a darn good job. He captures the life of the landscape much better than a computer would, yet most ski areas use computer-generated imaging to create their maps. And Niehues’ precision is incredible.
A former ad agency illustrator, his artistic process from start to finish is a bit more adventurous than that of most painters. He begins by taking a Cessna plane over the resort so he can photograph it. Although it’s risky to fly in adverse winter conditions, he finds the white landscapes essential when it comes to his renderings.
“I get out in the winter because the areas out west especially have so many open slopes above timberline and the snow gives you an idea of the undulation. In the summertime, it all blends in with your brush and rocks and so forth,” he says. “I prefer to shoot in the winter although I’ve had to extend my stay at times. I’ve flown in some pretty bad weather. In Quebec, I was shooting a project and it was really windy and extremely cold. To get the photographs, I had to take out my credit card and scrape the ice off the windows.”
Shooting through a snow-hazed window isn’t a big deal because as the artist says, “I’m shooting for information, not quality.”
Niehues will instruct his pilot to fly about 4,000 feet above the summit of the resort and then lower into areas around the base and mid-mountain. He’ll take a couple hundred photos and whittle them down to a handful to begin his pencil sketch.
“Back in the day I’d go through five rolls of film. I’d get four or five prints and work from that,” he says.
After his pencil rendering is complete, Niehues abandons the photos and begins adding color, airbrushing the sky and bringing the terrain to life with watercolor. Working about six hours a day, it took him three weeks to finish the Breck map.
“Watercolor is forgiving because you can come back and re-wet it. That’s how I make all the forests. I stroke in the trees and re-wet the areas so the highlights will come out,” he says. “If you look at the Breck map, there are warmer colors as you go down from top to bottom, which gives you the elevation. Earlier in my career I had a lot more brilliant greens and it was more creative. Later now, I’ve wanted to be more authentic. But I really try to keep the artistic part in there.”
Take a close look at the Breck map – the shadows, the numerous shades of blue and green, the minute detail of the pines, forests and lakes. It’s art of the highest quality.
And of course, Niehues loves his work. He becomes fully engrossed in the detail of the fine strokes and the hours roll by like minutes.
“When I first started, I thought I’d have 10 years and computers are going to come and take over. I have lost a lot of jobs to computer-generated maps, but now they’re coming back. Computers can’t create the same way with the same feeling. I’m painting the great outdoors. There’s got to be feeling.”