Painting Our Parks

Photo: Lindsay Pierce

The legendary ski resort painter James Niehues is turning his brush to national parks.

After spending 35 years painting the world’s ski resorts, James Niehues has assumed an unlikely mantle as one of the most widely viewed artists of the 21st century—clout he plans to use for a new purpose: protecting our public lands.

Niehues’s career capturing the ski world has recently been compiled into the award-winning coffee table book The Man Behind the Maps, which showcases 200 ski resorts around the world. Now, Niehues has turned his attention closer to home. In his new American Landscape Project, his brush strokes are focused on celebrating America’s beloved national parks and their landscapes.

For Niehues, the timing is crucial.  

“Our national parks are treasures that are more important now than ever to protect,” he says. “Our forests are burning, our climate is changing. The parks are outposts and escapes from the ever-pressing demands of our busy everyday lives, a retreat that is threatened. I hope that they remain as I portray them.”

The American Landscape Project, Niehues says, was a natural next chapter after his ski resorts project.

He began developing the concept as he retired from painting ski maps, knowing that he had a bank of photos from his flights around the resorts—ones that he hoped to some day get around to painting. 

Ansel Adams was a great inspiration, Niehues adds, for capturing a sense of drama, composition, and lighting. “I admire his black and white photos, his contrast and textures, and his ability to capture the dynamics and atmosphere of the scene,” Niehues says. “So, the challenge was there and I decided to concentrate on iconic scenes, the most photographed and painted views in America.” Though, of course, they’ll all be portrayed with Niehues’s unique twist. 

While he’s sketched countless parks and wilderness areas already, this time Niehues is diving deeper, targeting 50 new illustrations of America’s top landscapes, many in our beloved national parks. The series begins with four Western icons: Yosemite National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Grand Canyon National Park and Zion National Park. Niehues also recently returned from a photography trip to Crater Lake National Park.

But the final list isn’t set in stone. Niehues has invited the public to direct him on his artistic journey by enlisting his fans to help select the most iconic views in America. 

James Niehues works on half dome for the American Landscape Project in his home studio in Parker, Colorado Photo: James Niehues

“We’ve been having fun with it on Instagram,” says cohort Todd Bennett, who helped Niehues publish his ski resort maps book. “He suggested a bunch of different views, and his followers have been helping him narrow down what’s next. It’s his version of a March Madness tournament.”

Raised on a farm in western Colorado, Niehues has always had a passion for landscapes and “loved a good puzzle,” he says. It’s a combination that lent itself to painting ski resorts, and one that’s serving him well now. 

After all, painting national parks and other majestic landscapes comes with one unique challenge: They’re huge. The scale makes it tricky to translate their grandeur into a single work of art—let alone one on a 2-D medium. 

“Everybody who’s taken a photo of an awe-inspiring scene knows that the photo just doesn’t do justice to the experience,” he says. “That’s because we see not only with our eyes but also our brain, heart, and imagination—I keep that in mind when I create these perspectives.” 

Take Niagara Falls, for instance. Nieuhues started with a sketch from an image he took from the observation platform. “But I gave the falls a little extra height,” he says, “more like we experience while personally viewing it.” 

Scenes like these require reviewing countless photos and maps for accuracy. Then he’lll review the terrain on Google Earth to pick the best perspective.  

“Having mapped for the past 35 years, I make sure to see to it that all terrain detail is absolutely correct,” he explains. “Just as with trail maps, I turn slopes and tweak elements to show features that are hidden to reveal all that I can.”

A case in point is his portrayal of Yosemite National Park. “In Yosemite Valley I’ve taken the most famous perspective, the tunnel view, and raised my viewpoint. Even so, Yosemite Falls is hidden behind the Three Brothers, so I manipulated this area to show the falls while keeping the terrain correct in relation to the other elements. I wanted to show the entire valley and all of its dynamics.”

While he’s still plugging away on the project, national park explorers can rest assured that, like his heralded ski maps collection, there will soon be a way to see all of his sketching and paintings paying tribute to some of our country’s best national landscapes. 

“We’ve been talking about this as a standalone publication or as an add-on to a second edition of The Man Behind The Maps,” says Bennett. “Currently, there are art prints available on his website, celebrating the first three series he has released, covering nearly 20 locations.”

And there are plenty more on the way, Niehues says. “This project is a new chapter for me and I’m thrilled to share my interpretation of the greatest national parks and landscapes in America. It will be another year to get through the list… and I’ll enjoy every minute of it.”

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