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'The Man Behind The Maps': Jim Niehues Hand Paints Vermont's Ski Trails

A detail watercolor image of a ski mountain covered in snow and trees.
Jim Niehues, courtesy
Artist Jim Niehues flies over mountain peaks and snaps hundreds of aerial photos before creating trail map paintings using watercolor.

First, flying over summits to snap hundreds of aerial photos, then putting the puzzle of pictures together to create an image he'll paint with watercolor, artist Jim Niehues is "The Man Behind The Maps."Those trail maps depict Vermont mountain ski resorts, like Stowe, Okemo, Sugarbush, Ascutney, Mad River Glen and others.

Niehues' very first Vermont trail map portrait was for Stowe, created for Ski Country Magazine in 1990. The resort then used the painted depiction in brochures. That same year, five more Vermont resorts followed suit and hired Niehues to paint bird's-eye aerial views of their mountains, right down the intricate details of individual pine trees and cars in the parking lots.

Niehues spoke to VPR's Mary Engisch about his life's work in painting landscapes. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: How do you get the images that you paint?

Jim Niehues: Certainly, aerial photography. I’ll get up and fly the area. In 1990, the first one I did was Stowe.

That was a great year for me because there were six (ski resorts) that I got in one flight ... and I would fly at a high altitude and get a wide pan of the mountain. Then I would drop to lower elevations and get a lot of detail down about 500 feet above the summit and get the background.

And then to the summit elevation and get detail of the upper mountain and mid-mountain and get the lower detail.

'I would remember the early morning and all the frost on the trees and the canopy just glowed.' — Jim Niehues, ski trail map painter on skiing Vermont mountains

I can’t get into a landscape without actually mapping it. I gotta be truthful to it and I think that is important.

From your aerial photos, how do you then create the paintings?

It’s kind of a puzzle. You take all these different perspectives and mesh them together so that you have a final view on a single pane of paper. And it’s watercolor in most cases. The very latest one of Mad River Glen, I did in oil. That’s the only Vermont one that I’ve done in oil.

What’s the advantage of watercolor over oil?

The main reason is to make changes as the years went by and repaint that area to the new alterations on the mountain. Even if I use a computer, I’ll go back to the original and repaint it to keep it up to date.

You grew up looking up at Colorado’s high peaks. What stands out about Vermont’s mountains as you paint them?

I’ve painted 200 of these. It’s kind of hard to make everyone look different. But they are. And they are kind of fingerprints of the resort.

The Eastern area, with their hardwoods, poses sometimes a challenge to portray that well. But every time I would ski out there, I would remember the early morning and all the frost on the trees and the canopy just glowed.

That’s what I try to capture in my paintings. Hopefully, I’ve done that well.

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