Skiers, says artist James Niehues, “judge the mountain by the trail map. You want to portray the mountain as beautiful as it is.” Niehues has been in the business of capturing that beauty since 1987, the year he painted his first trail map. Since then, he’s painted 194 different maps of ski trails around the world.

Niehues started his career in advertising, but as he says in the video explaining his process, when he painted that first map he “loved it right away.” Making these ski maps requires a real shift in perspective. There’s no way to create an accurate representation from the ground, so Niehues takes to the sky.

Using aerial photography, he can get a better sense of the mountain, capturing the whole scene; every tree, every bend in a trail, every rise of a slope. Those overhead images then become references for his sketches. In a 2004 interview with Cabinet magazine, Niehues’ likened the process to assembling a puzzle, “with the end result being informing the viewer as clearly as you can.” His paintings can take up to three months, from photography to final painting, to complete.

Niehues’ work has been seen by thousands of people, most of whom never knew the artist, or the process, behind these everyday objects.

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