Everyday genius

How Athina “Vanillaburp” Lau makes Minecraft art with a focus on the simple things

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as into dramatic builds as the next ‘Crafter. Massive dragons coiling through storm clouds and giant gods standing astride sprawling cities: they’re right up my street. But sometimes, the maps that really get me are the quieter ones, builds which conjure up the atmosphere of real-life places.

I think there’s a real skill in using the Minecraft toolbox and art style to create somewhere that looks and feels familiar while also making it visually interesting. So my attention was definitely piqued when I saw Athina “Vanillaburp” Lau’s block models. She has a knack for making believable places filled with everyday objects that she’s modelled, things that often get overlooked in favour of the weird or dramatic.

Athina’s recreation of Max’s room from the excellent time-foldin’ teens story game, Life is Strange.

She makes chairs and beds, food and kitchen appliances, bedrooms and desks. Regular things, the kinds of things that everyone’s familiar with. But, you might be thinking, why the heck would you want to make such boring stuff? But, I’d say in this fictional conversation, just because it’s everyday, it’s not boring!

“A lot of the time we take objects around us for granted,” Athina tells me when I ask her about her work. “It’s only when we take time to properly observe them that we can appreciate the finer details, such as cracks, patterns and overall design.”

Athina’s kitchen manages to look so clean!

Her bathroom and kitchen, for example, are studies in careful detail, cleanly presented but with a sense of texture and character. Bottles are haphazardly lined up on the side of the bath and the coffee-maker and food-mixer feature every button and element they’d need to function.

“I enjoy recreating a lot of what I see in the form of Minecraft models, not only because they are immediately recognisable, but because in a world of just cubes, any object I model can really be appreciated in terms of its overall design,” Athina says, explaining that she always uses reference images to work from. “Creating things from imagination can be fun, but having a visual guide gives you a better idea of what size and details a model needs.”

It’s surprisingly hard to design a real-life space where everything feels in proportion to everything else.

Another important thing Athina gets right is scale. Things look the right size. “I find it useful being able to compare objects side by side to estimate the size of a model,” she says. But they’re far from hyper-realistic. Her models still look very much like part of Minecraft, and that, I think, is the real secret to why they’re so great. They’re blocky and simple, and a dead match for many of Minecraft’s aesthetic values.

“I’ve learned that if you want a model to fit in with Minecraft, using Minecraft textures or even your own low-resolution textures is a good first step,” Athina says. In fact, she warns against using higher resolution textures. Since Minecraft models are cuboids with flat surfaces, high resolution textures don’t necessarily add any more detail while also tending to conflict with Minecraft’s style. It’s also rather at odds with her own minimalistic approach.

Food that looks good and also fits with Minecraft style.

Since Athina started playing, she’s seen Minecraft as a creative game rather than one about survival and adventuring. “I immediately saw the creative side,” she says. Even though block models didn’t exist back then, she started out using custom textures to create her first map and was immediately hooked on the idea of creating scenes with atmosphere.

Soon after, she discovered that she could model her own blocks for use in her scenes. She immediately downloaded MrCrayfish’s Model Creator to get started and made her first models, which were for a bedroom scene, and found the new freedom she had to create revelatory. “In a way, it’s like doing interior design without spending any money on furniture!” she says. “I could make the room just how I wanted it.”

Athina’s work has stood out enough that the London art gallery Tate Modern and Microsoft have hired her to produce builds, as well as various YouTubers and minigame makers.

Restrained use of bright cyan gives this metal fella a real punch.

And Athina doesn’t only create models of everyday things; in fact, one of her favourites is a mech. “I spent a lot of time making it look detailed and on a bigger scale than I had ever done before,” she says. What’s more, parts of it are animated. “It’s a reminder that sometimes you need to step out of your comfort zone and try something new.”

Still, she advises that anyone wanting to get into making 3D models for Minecraft to start where she did: with the everyday. “So you get a closer look at the details,” she says. "Try to model things that you find interesting and exciting. It becomes fun and easy to put lots of work and details to a model when it’s something that I can’t stop thinking about.”

A gaming setup I think we can all get behind.

Then she gets stuck into building models using two pieces of 3D editing software. MrCrayfish’s Model Creator is free and is specially developed for Minecraft, and Cubik Studio is generalist voxel modelling software that supports Minecraft and costs a modest amount.

She starts with a basic shape and then adds smaller cubes for details. “In terms of textures, I suggest having the colours of the tiny details contrast with the main body of a model,” she advises. “This helps them stand out and the model will still look pretty and detailed from afar.”

The wrapping paper in Santa’s grotto scene shows how Lau isn’t afraid to use high resolution textures where they count.

The last stage using a process called UV mapping to project her 2D texture to the 3D surface of the model. The key is to ensure the pixels don’t look stretched. Finally, she exports the model to a Resource Pack so it works within Minecraft and releases it.

“I would encourage to always share your work to receive feedback from the community,” she advises, since it’s a way of improving skills as well as showing off skills and meeting new potential collaborators. It certainly worked for Athina: “I never really planned for it and generally I just want to see where this leads.”

She’s proof that you can go far with a lot of application and real attention on the little things.