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Habits & Routines

Monet of the Mountain: How a Ski Maps Painter Owns His Niche Market

The pros and cons of hyper-specialization.


Chances are you’ve seen a James Niehues painting before, but you didn’t know it. His canvas is the ski trail map, which is often overlooked for its artistic value. But since 1986, Niehues has created more than 240 different maps for resorts on five continents including Aspen Highlands, Sun Valley, Vail, Whistler Blackcomb, and Big Sky.

For this upcoming ski season, the 70-year-old has designed the trail map for the newly-combined Park City and Canyons ski areas, now America’s largest ski mountain.

Niehues’s mastery of a single métier may sound familiar. One day you design something relatively obscure for a client, and they recommend you to a colleague. The referrals snowball until pretty soon you’re the go-to book jacket, wedding invite, or font designer, whether or not that was your intent.

The referrals snowball until pretty soon you’re the go-to book jacket, wedding invite, or font designer, whether or not that was your intent.

So how do you thrive in a small (but lucrative) market niche? Niehues [pronounced “Knee-Hews”] takes his approach to the extreme—he designs nothing but the best ski maps in the world. And he has succeeded in this endeavor for the last 30 years by adhering to the following key tenets that are just as applicable to any creative looking to dominate their niche market.  

Befriend the Current Master

Niche artistic fields are small and likely already owned by a few major creative players. Take the ski map industry. There are roughly two dozen large ski resorts in the U.S. and a ski map redesign is a relatively rare occurrence. The industry can only really support one cartographer.

So follow Niehues’s lead and don’t try to immediately compete against the current masters. Instead, look to them for guidance. They are valuable resources who have both artistic knowledge and a firm understanding of how the business works.

A one-time advertising designer, Niehues was 40 years old and unemployed in the mid 1980s when he decided to try his hand painting landscapes. The most prominent landscape painter in Colorado at the time was Bill Brown, who did ski maps. “I love puzzles and it was intriguing to take the mountain terrain and show it as a trail map,” says Niehues. Brown had a monopoly on commissions at the time, so Niehues reached out to Brown and asked if Brown needed any help.  

Brown actually did need an extra set of hands and because Niehues had expressed interest, he had Niehues touch up a few of his existing maps. When Brown decided to leave the field shortly thereafter, he passed his jobs on to Niehues, including one to illustrate Winter Park’s Mary Jane mountain in Colorado. “It was one artist to the other,” says Niehues. “That’s the way I’m going to be when someone else comes along.” 

“It was one artist to the other,” says Niehues. “That’s the way I’m going to be when someone else comes along.” 

Niehues eventually converted the Mary Jane illustration into 35mm slides that he sent to every U.S. ski resort marketing manager. He added a note that read: “A quality illustration reflects a quality ski experience.”

The sales pitch worked. Vail, the largest resort in Colorado, called to set up a meeting. “I remember the Vail marketing manager saying ‘You’re the man,’” recalls Niehues. “I turned around to see who he was talking to and then I realized it was me.” With an assignment from the most prominent ski resort in the U.S., Niehues was off and running on his own.

Adapt to the Medium  

The more unique the field, the more distinct the creative process. Truly embracing a niche also means being adaptable with your creative process. Be brutally honest with yourself and don’t be afraid to use special tools or adjust your technique to fit the medium. Niehues, for instance, realized he needed a prop plane and an arm sling.

He begins most trail map projects by taking a flight over the mountain and photographing the ski area from above. Back at his basement studio in Denver, he uses the photos to create a full-sized black and white trail map sketch.

Niehues sketching out the map by pencil based on the image of the mountain.

Niehues sketches out the Park City Mountain map based on the image of the mountain.

Once the rendering is approved by the resort, Niehues projects the sketch onto his painting board and traces a pencil outline of the projection. Then he paints. Larger geographic features, like the sky, snow and shadows, are airbrushed.

Niehues airbrushes the larger geographic features, like the snow and the shadows.

Niehues airbrushes the larger geographic features on the Park City Mountain map.

Niehues undertakes the trees in stages, first using a fine point brush on the lines and then a wet brush for a watercolor texture. No detail is overlooked. Trees on the upper portion of the terrain are bluish while those further down the slopes are green to reflect the amount of oxygen they receive at different elevations. 

Niehues paints the trees in multiple phases.

Niehues paints the trees in multiple phases.

In his heyday, Niehues put in an eight-hour shift at the board, seven days a week. “I was painting so much that my muscles would cramp up and I couldn’t hold my arm up,” he says. “I developed a sling that hung from the ceiling that would hold up my arm so I could paint.” Let that sink in: The next time you’re feeling tired mid-project, remember—a sling, just so he could keep going.

A large ski map such as Park City’s can take more than three weeks to produce. To make the map the most accurate, Niehues has to adapt to the medium. He must think like a skier, not an illustrator. “I don’t worry too much about the exact width of a run, but rather how it would ski,” he says. “The best way to show the trails is by interpreting the experience.”

Hold Firm During Market Downturns    

The tradeoff of owning a niche field is that your income closely follows the ups and downs of that particular market. Since the ski business is seasonal, Niehues quickly learned his earnings can follow that pattern as well. “Either I’ve got too much work and I’ve got to turn down some business,” he says, “or I’m waiting around for business.” To avoid lulls between assignments, Niehues books jobs 90 days out. The idea pertains to all unstructured work flows: Schedule as far in advance as possible, even if you can’t wrap your head around your life months from now. If a near-term client drops out or a gap opens up between jobs, you have protected your income stream and can shift to another upcoming project.

Niehues produces 14 to 20 maps a year. Rates vary by resort size. The fee for a small ski resort map, like those in the Midwest, is $3,500. Maps for ski areas in winter vacation hubs go for $10,000. And maps that cover multiple ski resorts in a single region range from $13,500 to $15,000.   

If it’s a slow year for resorts, it can mean a tough year for Niehues. “There have been times in the last 10 to 15 years where I was wondering if I needed to start doing something else,” he says. One instance occurred in the early 2000’s when resorts started using computer-generated trail maps. “It was really tight,” Niehues remembers.  

If you ever experience a client slowdown like Niehues, take a page from his playbook. He believed that in the long run his hand-painted maps were more realistic than computerized ones, but, in order to remain competitive in the short term, he reduced his prices to match the digitally-composed image fees. By creating a superior product at the same price, he was able to convince two-thirds of his clients to ultimately chose his art over that produced by a computer.

June11

At this stage, Nihues has completed the top of the Park City Mountain map and still needs to add the evergreen trees and village details to the lower half of the map.

Niehues also augmented his income by producing summer season mountain maps for clients. It was a shrewd move: As clients expand their business—like the ski resort industry promoting their resorts as warm weather destinations—find ways that you can provide (read: monetize) your services to amplify the new offerings.

Ironically, Niehues never skied before he started making trail maps and he rarely has done it since. “I have skied about five percent of the ski mountains I’ve painted,” he admits. “But what is important to me is that I have been on the slopes of the mountains I paint and I know that ski area very well.”

Matt McCue

Matt McCue is the Editor-in-Chief of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him @mattmccuewriter or email him at mccue@adobe.com. 

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