Backcountry Art: A Conversation with Alpinecho and Sarah Anderson
By Ryan Wichelns
Sometimes, the best way to really feel like you’ve captured the beauty of your campsite or that alpine lake is by sitting down and trying to recreate it in your sketchbook. Sarah Anderson, along with her husband Ryan, made a business out of that love for outdoor art, called Alpinecho. You can find the brand’s gear—stickers, water bottles, hats and more—in EMS stores now.
Alpinecho’s co-founder and illustrator, Sarah, chatted with goEast about the business and her unique art.
goEast: I have to imagine it’s been a long time, but how long have you been drawing and how did you get into it?
Sarah Anderson: Like many kids, my artistic endeavors began with homemade birthday cards and winning an Easter coloring page competition at our local grocery store. I enjoyed drawing as a hobby throughout childhood and high school and wanted to make it into a career but wasn’t sure how. In college, I majored in graphic design and fell in love with a new way of communicating visually. But I missed the traditional, hand-touched aesthetic of fine art and illustration and began incorporating it into as many graphic design projects as possible.
Shortly after Ryan and I met, he brought me to an alpine lake where I drew my first en plein air (outside) sketch. We lived in New Zealand a few years later and that’s when I really started to get back to my drawing roots. I filled a pocket sketchbook with drawings of the landscapes and places we visited. Since then, I’ve continued to combine my love for the outdoors and drawing. My ideal weekend is a backpacking trip to a remote lake to draw while Ryan fishes.
goEast: So much art these days, especially art on products, is created digitally. Not yours. Why is that?
Sarah Anderson: The fact that hand-drawn art on products is rare is exactly why I love to create it. There isn’t an authentic digital replacement for hand-drawn art on textured paper (and no easy undo button either). I think that shows in the final product and people enjoy seeing traditional drawings and paintings in a less traditional space like on outdoor goods. Every design I create starts with traditional methods. Whether I’m carving out of rubber, dipping an old-fashioned nib into an ink well, or painting with watercolors, traditional mediums and methods bring genuine character to each design.
goEast: Where is your favorite place to sit down and draw?
Sarah Anderson: That’s an easy one! My favorite place to draw is at the edge of an alpine lake while Ryan fishes nearby. Just the two of us in the backcountry surrounded by mountains, birdsong, and a campfire to look forward to. On our last backpacking trip, we were joined by a curious heard of bighorn sheep which was a great addition! Of course, Alpinecho released a bighorn sheep sticker soon after.
goEast: Do you have a favorite subject (or category of subjects, like mountains or lakes or animals) to draw?
Sarah Anderson: My go-to subject when I’m doodling or drawing just for fun is mountain peaks and, you guessed it, alpine lakes. I love drawing anything in nature— except for spiders!
goEast: When you’re drawing in the backcountry, what do you carry with you to make your art?
Sarah Anderson: When weight matters (and it does in the backcountry because you must get it there), I bring:
- A small mixed media sketchbook (I like Stillman & Birn Beta Series softcovers),
- A travel watercolor set,
- Viviva Color watercolor colorsheets (loads of color for very little weight!),
- Pigma Micron pens (These sometimes leak due to the altitude change so I keep them in a bag on the way up and down the mountain),
- Black and white charcoal pencils,
- A kneaded eraser,
- And Ryan’s childhood waffle sleeping pad to sit on.
goEast: Where does your brand name, Alpinecho, come from?
Sarah Anderson: The summer before we launched, Ryan and I returned to the same alpine lake where I started drawing in the outdoors. An afternoon storm rolled in and we crouched in the boulder field as thunder echoed through the valley. It was the perfect “alpine echo” or Alpinecho. (Then we hightailed it out of there!)
That rugged landscape inspired me to paint and sketch outdoors for the first time. Then it inspired our new name. Now it inspires us each day as we capture nature’s most awe-inspiring moments, big and small.
goEast: On your website, you suggest “drawing from your experience.” Have you and Ryan had a particular experience in the outdoors that really resonated in your art?
Sarah Anderson: Yes! Every Alpinecho design is a result of our adventures in the outdoors. A few of our favorites are:
- The “Only the Essentials” sticker that represents my typically overpacked backpack,
- Our Stargazer hat, neck gaiters and bandana that depict clear, summer nights in the mountains when the milky way is visible above dark silhouettes of pine trees and illuminated mountain peaks (the artwork was based on our own camping photos),
- Our “Lake Days” sticker and greeting card. We spent a full day fishing and paddling across a lake surrounded by tall evergreens. Those same trees were destroyed in a forest fire the next year, so the artwork is uniquely special to us.
- The “Puffin in a Puffer” sticker because I finally saw puffins in Iceland like I’d always dreamed. (For two weeks in Iceland, I couldn’t stop picturing puffins in tiny puffers!)
goEast: Why is it important to you that so many of your products be made in the United States?
Sarah Anderson: We didn’t set out to be an American-made brand, but our search for manufacturing partners opened our eyes to the devastating practice known as supply chain slavery. An estimated 16+ million people are currently exploited in the private sectors supplying our daily goods and services. As a small company, we don’t have the capacity to verify ethical practices at international factories so manufacturing in the USA allows us to closely monitor the production of each item and ensures that our products are indeed Honest Outdoor Goods.
We are also proud to partner with a social enterprise and World Fair Trade Organization Guaranteed Member in Nepal with a mission to create jobs that empower marginalized people. Alpinecho hats are skillfully made by Purnaa who employs survivors of exploitation. We believe how it’s made matters because who made it matters. We’re committed to top quality products made with integrity and refuse to make exceptions so that our customers don’t have to.
goEast: How did the EMS x Alpinecho design come about? Did you have any particular inspiration for it?
Sarah Anderson: We visited New England last fall to gather inspiration for new designs and build potential partnerships. I created the first version of the Alpinecho x EMS Logo art on a tray table during our cross-country flight (hint: ask for an extra cup of water if you plan to paint and fly). I was inspired by a photo of a canoe peacefully gliding across a misty lake surrounded by evergreen forests and low mountain peaks in New England. The final artwork is very close to the original with the addition of a loon for good measure!
goEast: You recently spent some time in New England to gather some regionally-specific design inspiration. What are you most excited to draw from that?
Sarah Anderson: Mushrooms! I’ve never seen such a wide verity of shapes and colors. We successfully foraged chanterelles and ate them with mussels on buttered pasta for dinner.
I’m also working on designs inspired by Mount Washington. Our ascent hike was rained out, but we still explored the area and saw roaring waterfalls, mist-filled valleys and our first barred owl. New England’s vast vegetation and iconic landscapes and wildlife will certainly influence future Alpinecho designs.