Colorado-based artist James Niehues knows his mountains: New Zealand’s Whakapapa; Australia’s Threadbo; Maine’s Sugarloaf; Washington’s Mount Baker.
And let’s not forget Utah’s Beaver Mountain, known affectionately by Cache Valley residents as “The Beav.”
It is, in fact, one of over 350 mountains Niehues has illustrated since he started in 1986, painting for major resorts all over the world. Along the way, his paintings have caught the attention of major news outlets like CBS and The New York Times. And now, he looks forward to the release of a coffee table book, “James Niehues: The Man Behind the Map.”
“When I have it done, I feel like it’s the best image that ski resort resort will ever have of their mountain,” Niehues told The Herald Journal in a phone interview last week.
The true reward for completing a painting, he said, is thinking about how outdoorsmen and women use his maps in the midst of winter activity.
“Maybe after the day, they all get together and have a beer and then pull out my map and go over the mountain and where they’ve been,” Niehues said.
Niehues has never been to Beaver Mountain — located about 45 minutes east of Logan — but he’s heard of it.
In 2011, Niehues got a call from operations manager Travis Seeholzer about painting the Beav. The painting would be used on signs scattered at the base and tops of the mountain, as well as distributed as pocked-sized trail guides.
“It’s basically just a way-finder for people around the resort,” Seeholzer said.
Niehues painted the mountain, but Beaver Mountain managers added graphic art on top of it, including trail names and their difficulty levels to make it a usable work of art for customers, according to Seeholzer. Prior to using Niehues’ painting, Beaver Mountain relied on photographs to make trail maps.
“In theory, that sounds great, but the scale becomes really difficult to fit that, as far as a large panoramic scale,” Seeholzer said. “So, by him being able to do a rendition, you can kind of squeeze everything into a manageable size. … That’s why his talents are so helpful.”
Niehues’ signature is on every sign and document depicting his painting of Beaver Mountain at The Beav.
“Our guests don’t necessarily know anything about him, but he’s kind of a legend within the ski industry,” Seeholzer said.
Occasionally, Beaver Mountain officials give away electronic copies of the painting free of charge when customers inquire about it.
Beaver Mountain officials see Niehues’ work not just as functional, but as a part of the resort’s overall marketing and branding efforts.
“They have to have a functionality, but they’re nice to look at as well,” Seeholzer said.
Whenever he can, Niehues will get in a plane and fly over a mountain to get photographs he can use as a foundation for his paintings. That’s what happened a few years ago, when he prepared to paint Powder Mountain in Eden.
But Niehues did not fly for photos in 2011, as he was simply provided photographs of Beaver Mountain by resort officials.
“My sketches are full size, so they have a lot of detail in them,” Niehues said. “The big thing is … even though you’re distorting a lot of different points on the mountain, is to keep it all relative, so the skier that’s skiing it can look at the map and feel it’s dead on, that he can trust it and, indeed, it will be right.”
Niehues uses a combination of airbrush and hand brush to make his paintings. First, he airbrushes the sky; then, the snow and slopes. He paints the shadows of the trees before actually painting the trees themselves.
“It’s very challenging to think about how you’re going to pull a side of the mountain around before you can do it,” he said. “And what you have to do to that and still be correct and relative to everything.”
Nevertheless, painting mountains is a satisfying craft, Niehues said.
When a painting is finished, Niehues will professionally scan and transfer it into a large file, which will be sent to the client for proofing.
“Then, the client can go in and check it over and make sure I’ve got everything correct,” he said.
Seeholzer saw the proof and made some changes to Niehues’ painting before finally approving it.
After suggesting some edits, Seeholzer said Niehues’ revised version of the Beaver Mountain painting was perfect.
“I was just amazed,” he said. “I can’t draw a stick figure, so it’s very impressive to me.”
Seeholzer appreciates Niehues’ style of painting.
“I think it’s a great blend of functional and aesthetic; I think that’s the key,” he said.
For Niehues, who grew up in Colorado, painting scenery makes him feel right at home.
“So, this became a way that I could use my talent and my painting ability,” he said. “It’s the great outdoors and that’s just what I’ve tried to portray.”