We review a sumptuous coffee table book of mountain art by legendary mapmaker James Niehues
The name James Niehues might not be familiar to British skiers and mountaineers, however if you’ve ever skied in US or Canadian ski resorts (and for that matter, New Zealand and Australia) there’s a high probability that you’ve seen – and used – his mountain paintings. How? Well he’s the man behind the piste maps of over 200 leading ski resorts, and due to the fact that hundreds of millions of trailmaps featuring his paintings have been printed over the last 40 years, it makes his art – for that is what it is – some of the most widely-viewed of the 21st Century.
This book is not cheap at £80.49, but what you get is a thing of absolute beauty; the production quality and presentation is absolutely superb, with over 300 pages of art-quality paper which shows off fully the exceptional detail that Niehues brings to his maps. Niehues has followed in a fine American tradition of map painters that began with Hal Shelton in the 1960s and continued with Bill Brown into the 1980s, before the baton was passed to Niehues. Each generation learned from the previous, but will Niehues become the last of the line? Only time will tell, but in a modern digital age, Niehues may very well be the last of the great mapmakers.
As well as the paintings themselves, the book showcases his exacting process in which he first captures aerial shots and then explores the mountain himself before painstakingly illustrating every run, chairlift, tree and cliff band by hand. Hundreds of hours go into each of Niehues’ paintings, and it really is quite mindblowing the precision and care that goes into his creations.
“I have always enjoyed the challenge of fitting an entire mountain on a single page. Mountains are wonderful puzzles, and I knew if I painted with the right amount of detail and care, they would last,” said Niehues. “A good design is relevant for a few years, maybe even a decade. But a well-made map is used for generations.”
Who will buy this book? Well anyone who has skied any of the Top 50 ski resorts in the US (of which Niehues has painted 48) and want to relive those moments, or anyone who is planning or dreaming about trips and wants to recce the resorts before deciding where to go. Another group of people who will find the book valuable is anyone who is into, or getting into, mountain art themselves (we know of several friends who have taken this up recently). The chapter on how Niehues works, from aerial photos to pencil drawings to the paintings themselves is almost worth the price of this book itself – with his explanations of how he is able to put such extraordinary detail into his paintings.
We not only enjoyed poring over the amazing paintings of mountain regions from Canada to Mexico, to New Zealand and beyond – but were also drawn into the method of creating such paintings and have even been inspired to give it a go ourselves – after all, what better activity for us mountain lovers to get into during lockdown, than drawing or painting the hills and mountains we love? Just like James Niehues has been doing for four decades.