Coolest Travel Jobs: What It’s Like to Hand-Design Ski Maps

With mapping technology advancing, the art of hand-drawn maps is disappearing. Meet one of the people keeping the precise tradition alive.

Coolest Travel Jobs: What It’s Like to Hand-Design Ski Maps

Courtesy of Rad Smith

In our ongoing series, we explore what it takes to land—and work—the world’s coolest travel jobs. Previous installments featured interviews with a wildland firefighter, an avalanche forecaster, and a Disney Imagineer. Up next: a ski map cartographer.

Hand-painted maps are a staple of ski resorts all over the world, but these maps don’t draw themselves. This unique field of illustrated cartography combines traditional painting and drawing skills with technical mapping chops. This is Rad Smith’s sweet spot. A protégé of master mapmaker James Niehues, Smith has spent more than a decade working as a ski map designer, an interpretive graphic designer, and a cartographic and natural science illustrator. We caught up with Smith at his home in Bozeman, Montana, to find out how one breaks into this very niche field, why skiing a run before drawing it produces a better end product, and what he can do with a paintbrush that Google Maps can’t touch.

What did you want to be growing up?
“I spent so much time in the outdoors, I always thought I would do something involving natural science. But in high school, I started drawing and painting. I didn’t see it as a viable career path back then—it was just something to fill my free time. But in college, I found a deeper interest in all visual arts: commercial graphic design, fine arts, painting, and three-dimensional work like carving and sculpting.”

When did you figure out that you could combine your love of nature with your interest in the arts and actually make a living?
“That happened later in my career, after I moved to Montana. In the beginning, I was working on catalogs for a large ski company called Spyder Outerwear. I was drawing a lot of garments, which is very technical, detail-oriented work. I found an interest in technical drawing doing that but quickly realized that advertising and marketing weren’t my forte. That interest in technical illustration paved the way to mapping.”

What was your first experience with cartography?

“The first map I drew on a computer was a map for my wedding, back in 1996 [laughs]. But my first assignments, when I moved to Montana and worked for an outdoor magazine called River, were just simple location maps for articles. They combined watercolor backgrounds with computer overlays of typography and icons. I instantly fell in love.”

Tell me about your mentor, James Niehues. How did you get hooked up with him?

“I started pursuing ski maps around 2006, but I’d been aware of James’s work since the mid-’90s. He had the market cornered on painted maps. He and I were actually competing on some projects in the mid-2000s, so I never thought I would pursue a conversation with him. But four or five years ago, I started reading interviews with James where he said he was looking at retirement but had no one to pass the torch to. He said hand-painting felt like a dying field—with so many digital map applications out there, people just weren’t interested in created illustrated maps in a more traditional sense. So after maybe the third interview I read like this, I blindly emailed him.

“Every time I drew a map digitally, I felt like I wasn’t getting the painterly look and feel that his maps had. At first, he was very polite, but he thought I was trying to find out how to make my computer-generated maps look more like his. He said, ‘I really can’t help you, but good luck with your career, and with your computer’ [laughs]. I quickly replied back and said, ‘No! No! I want to learn how to paint maps.’ I sent him some watercolors and field sketches I had done over the years and ever since then, we’ve had this great, growing friendship. He’s been forthcoming with a lot of information, which is just incredible.”

What is one of the most valuable things he has taught you?
“You know, just his overall encouragement to stick with it and work through the frustrating periods. It’s been really consistent and super positive.”

Are there people who think you’re crazy, trying to wind back the clock and do painted maps instead of mastering the newest digital software?
“I’ve certainly heard from a few digital cartographers that hand-rendered maps are a dying niche. But to hear encouragement from someone like James, who has such a breadth of work that I hold in really high regard, is extra powerful for me. He’s one of the best panoramic map painters in history.”

What’s something you can do with a hand-painted map that you can’t do with digital?
“The biggest thing is the unlimited combination of colors. You could get similar results from computer painting, but there are a lot of happy accidents that happen with traditional paint that you just can’t see with a computer.”

When you’re hand painting a map, how difficult is it to make changes when a client decides they want something different?
“There’s definitely more effort involved than clicking, deleting, and replacing on a computer. But all of the maps I paint are gouache on illustration board, so you can actually pick up and remove that paint fairly easily. One thing you’re more careful to do is involve the client to a greater extent on the front end. From a business standpoint, it has taught me to be a better communicator.”

Walk me through a typical assignment. A ski resort in Idaho contacts you, how does it work?
“I start by talking to the people who know the mountain the best, and that’s usually ski patrollers or general managers. I ask what they like and dislike in their existing maps, and what they want to emphasize or deemphasize moving forward. From there, I gather information from a visual standpoint, using both aerial and on-the-ground photos. If I can visit and ski the mountain, all the better. If they don’t have aerial photos and it’s in the budget, I’ll hire a pilot and fly the mountain, photographing it from multiple elevations and angles.

“Next, I create a full-size pencil drawing on vellum. This allows me to work through problems of angles and shadows and to make sure I’m getting the whole mountain’s visual plane. It’s also the first big draft I share with the client. At this stage, it’s very easy to change things if the runs are in the wrong place or the shadows are too long. Once everyone agrees on the pencil rendering, I transfer that to the gessoed illustration board using an opaque projector. Then, finally, I start painting. I’m right-handed, so I work from top to bottom, left to right, and depending on the number of trees and details in the painting, it can take me anywhere from three or four days to three or four weeks.”

Then what, you just give the final painting to whomever commissioned it and they scan it to make maps?
“Typically I retain the rights and the physical painting. There have been a few clients that wanted the painting, too, and that was a separate commission from the commercial use of the image. I typically get a digital high-res image of the painting myself. Since I have a digital background, I can also provide digital overlays, like run names and drop-in graphics. That’s a separate service, but it gives me control over the final piece.”

When you get to ski at the resort you’re mapping, how does that on-the-ground experience help your work?
“It’s amazing how different things look in person. A ski run, for example, can feel much longer when you’re skiing it than it looks from the air. Other things may feel shorter or wider or narrower. It’s all information for my tool kit, so I can portray the mountain as a skier might see it.”

In what percentage of projects do you actually travel to the place you’re painting, versus just working off aerial photographs?
“Maybe half—not as much as I would like. A lot of it comes down to time and money.”

What’s the coolest place you’ve traveled for work?

“I’ve traveled quite a few areas around the northern Rockies, but my favorite was flying a private ranch only an hour from my house here in Bozeman. It was such dramatic landscape, with big elevation gains and deep canyon-y valleys. I spent some time on the ground on an ATV, too. It was just a breathtaking property, over 30 square miles of private ranchland.”

What’s the most challenging map you’ve drawn to date?

“It wasn’t the most technically challenging map, but I just finished one of a mountain range here in Bozeman for the Bridger Ridge Run. It was challenging because I know so many people who love that mountain range and know it like the back of their hand. The map was well-received, but I put a lot of pressure on myself because I knew there’d be so many critics out there.”

That’s something I never considered—that you would have critics! Like, people who’ve been skiing the same resort for 20 years, arguing with you over the accuracy of the map.

“Yup, oh yeah. [Laughs] Especially the ski areas. But I really try to iron all that out with the people who work on the mountain, because I feel like their word is the most definitive word. I’m friends with James on Facebook and when I see some of the comments people leave, I’m amazed at the nitpicking. ‘You know, that run looks steeper than it should . . .’. For whatever reason, people feel inclined to correct him on his artwork.”

Ugh. I’d be so annoyed. Everyone’s a critic on the Internet.

“Right! [Laughs] To his credit, James doesn’t reply to anyone. I think that’s a good technique: Let people say what they will. Personally, I love criticism. You can’t draw and paint and design in a bubble. If you do, you’re never gonna grow.”

What would be your dream landscape to paint?

“I would love to get some projects in Europe. Big glaciated mountains, dramatic elevation, a lot of rock . . .”

Is the European market hard to break into?

“It seems like it is, yeah. James did a few maps for European resorts, but a lot of them use European painters. And some are still using the same paintings that were done 40 or 50 years ago. The ski areas and landscapes haven’t changed that much and what has changed can be updated digitally.”

That must be a challenge in your line of work. Once a resort commissions one of these maps, why would it update it unless it experienced a natural event that dramatically altered the topography of the area?

“Yes, it is very much a limiting factor. The biggest change in my own career has been driven by real estate—resorts cutting in new roads or building new facilities that they want to include in the map. But there again, that can be done on the digital side and doesn’t need to be revisited with the painting.”

You have quite a diverse portfolio—it’s not like you only draw ski maps. Is that out of necessity or because you like all types of technical drawings?

“[Laughs] Both. I’ve been a staff illustrator for an environmental and cultural resource consulting firm for a long time. I do a lot of technical maps for a really diverse group of scientists—so there, again, I’ve been able to combine my love of science with my background in art. But I do it out of necessity, too. Ski resorts aren’t updating their maps every year, and there are a lot of resorts that just use digital map products. It would be tough to make a living just painting ski maps in this day and age.”

What types of drawings are you doing for scientists?

“I draw a lot of archaeological sites, which must be very accurate and measured so the archaeologists can show the distance of artifacts from one to the other and in relation to the landscape. It’s very different from a ski map, which is a lot looser and not as technical.”

How do people nowadays learn these skills? Can you major in cartography?

“I work with geographers who studied mapmaking, but it’s all digital. GIS, which stands for geographic information systems, is a huge field. Pretty much every municipality in the United States, and maybe even the world these days, uses GIS for street maintenance, fire station routes, everything. It’s a great field to be in, but it’s so different than the illustrated map field. It has its roots more in illustration than art, and those are two very different fields.”

Is GIS essentially what Google Maps is?
“Yes. That’s exactly what GIS allows: the layering of different map information. Your ability on Google Maps or Google Earth to click on all the layers—oh, show me all the borders or show me all the cities—that’s what GIS is. But to a much more powerful extent, since you could pull in, say, vegetation type and overlap that with the surface geology of an area. If someone knows that a rare plant only grows in a certain type of soil, you could combine those two layers, run an analysis, and figure out which places are most likely to have that rare plant.”

So in a way, GIS technology is both a blessing and a curse—in that it can give you a lot of information to draw upon in your work, but it’s also kind of the nail in the coffin for hand painting maps.

“Yep, it definitely is. I love having that information accessible for my own needs, but there are ski areas now that use an oblique Google Earth product as a ski map. The nice thing about illustrated maps, of course, is that you can emphasize and deemphasize certain aspects of the landscape that make that map more informative, whereas a Google Map treats everything one way. It’s hard to manipulate. I really hope in my heart that there’s a resurgence in the appreciation of artistic maps, hand-rendered maps, and illustrated maps and that not everyone relies on Google Maps for everything in their life.”

What personality traits make someone a great mapmaker?
“Attention to detail, and the willingness to add lots of little details until they add up to a greater sum. The digital world allows us to spit out a map with the push of a few buttons, so finding people who have the patience and interest in hand drawing maps may become harder and harder. It also helps to have a good sense of perspective and spatial relationships. Ever since I was a little kid, I was always aware of which way was north or which way the river flowed, without ever realizing it.”

So you’re a good person to be lost in the woods with?
“I think so! My family may not agree. [Laughs] As much as I’d like to get lost, I never do. Knock on wood.”

>>Next: What It’s Like to Be an Avalanche Forecaster

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to AFAR, New York Magazine, TIME, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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