An Artistic Approach to Making Maps

Artist James Niehues creates unique maps that give skiers a feel for the mountain. 

A map is a tool to help you navigate somewhere. But James Niehues takes a different approach to the maps he creates. Niehues is an artist who has sketched and painted more than 430 ski resort maps. He sees maps not only as a guide through the mountain, but also as a way to depict or represent the mountain to the individual who skis it. 

“It’s portraying the mountain as a skier would see it,” Niehues told me in a recent interview via Zoom. “I think the more important element is . . . to show the exciting adventure the skier is going to have.”

Niehues got into his career after being inspired by Bill Brown, another artist who painted ski maps. Brown, who liked Niehues’s paintings, eventually turned his company over to him. 



Niehues grew up painting the scenic environment around him. In his maps, he sketches and paints every tree, shadow, slope, and car. Instead of using a computer, he sketches and paints in every detail by hand.

“Most computer images that I see are reminiscent of the office,” Niehues said. “They remind you of the office instead of the great outdoors. The freedom that I have in hand-painting them, or that anyone would have when hand-painting them, is that you have a much freer expression. Your paint flows freely instead of being put there by a combination of numbers.”

Sketching every detail, Niehues said, also makes his paintings more believable. Including the accurate type of tree, putting a tree in the middle of a slope, or even adding shadows to all of the trees helps viewers believe the map more and recreates their ski experience.

“Sometimes I think, ‘If a tree doesn’t have a shadow, does it really exist?’” Niehues said. “I will go in and put a shadow in if I missed it.”


Siroos displays a ski map created by Niehues. 


Niehues said that his maps are more detailed than actual maps: “I don’t measure mountains. I portray them as they ski.”

Typically, Niehues skis the mountain that he will paint. He then flies around it, photographing the various slopes and valleys. The most challenging part of painting ski-resort maps, he said, is portraying all of the surfaces of a slope. 

As an artistic mapmaker, Niehues enjoys helping viewers not only navigate the mountain, but also understand their ski adventure. 



Top photo courtesy of James Niehues; bottom courtesy of the author