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Painting the Overworld – a deep-dive interview with painter Kristoffer Zetterstrand.

Painting the Overworld

Gaze upon the glory of Minecraft's new art by old friend Kristoffer Zetterstrand

Paintings! A marvel of creative expression! Since the dawn of time, these colored canvases have allowed mankind to manifest their deepest feelings and share them with an audience to invoke reactions such as “Ah!”, “Marvelous!”, and “What the heck am I looking at?!” 

William Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name?”, but if he had written “What’s in a painting?” it would have been a much better segue into the story of this article: Minecraft has gotten a beautiful batch of new paintings, making the lives of indecisive interior decorators harder than EVER! Thanks, developers!  

But are these pieces of art merely decorative features? Or do they contain hidden messages that speak of the secrets of the Overworld? 

“One thing I’ve heard from fans is that the paintings, in their weirdness, hint at something mysterious – a bigger world, something beyond,” says Kristoffer Zetterstrand, painter extraordinaire. “It’s quite interesting, because a basic idea in games is that you don’t want to break the immersion. Curiously, [the paintings] don’t seem to do that, at least not in a negative way. I think that’s a testament to the creative possibilities and atmosphere in Minecraft as a game. It’s all about imagining, so paintings that leave a lot to the imagination seem to fit right in.” 

Zetterstrand is no stranger to Minecraft – the majority of the game’s current paintings have been drawn by his brush.  He fell in love with art at an early age and spent much of his time drawing in museums as a kid. Later in life, he studied at the Royal College of Art in Stockholm and since 2001 has worked at his own studio. Mojang Studios? That’s just a side-gig he was approached about during Minecraft’s early development. 

“I followed the development of the game from the very start,” he says. “I was asked to make some pixel paintings for decoration, so I used paintings I had done previously as the starting point and shrunk them down pixel size.” 

Zetterstrand mainly uses oil paint in his work – but in order to get his motif in place quickly, he’ll start a piece with vinyl paint or acrylics first, which dry faster. He paints with a classical technique but prefers to construct the sketch of a painting with 3D software. Zetterstrand explains: “I think of my 3D scenes as theater stages, where I can quickly rearrange stuff, sample in actors from various image sources, set the lighting, and build a world of my own. It’s like 3D still lives, without the constraints of the physical world." 

EXPANDING THE IN-GAME GALLERY

As part of the Tricky Trials update, 20 new paintings have been added to the game – 15 of them created by Kristoffer Zetterstrand and five designed by in-house artist Sarah Boeving, bringing the total number of in-game art pieces up to a whopping 46. This makes placing a specific new painting on the walls of your house challenging – though the initiated know there are ways to manipulate the random selection by placing blocks to restrict the available surface area, only allowing paintings below a specific size to generate. This is good to consider, as there are no new paintings of the smallest kind – which Zetterstrand is grateful he didn’t have to create. 

“I had more time to think about the motifs. It also gave me a chance to look at the old ones and make new ones that complimented them. I wanted the new ones to be both familiar and make more use of the possibilities of somewhat larger canvases. And I wanted some of them at least to be a bit prettier.” 

When discussing the new motifs with Mojang’s Art Director Jasper Boerstra, Zetterstrand opted for a classical art approach rooted in video game inspiration, similar to what he had created over the last decade. The new paintings depict everything from everyday objects to intricate scenes between people – and even a (mandatory) skeleton. For a game that is simple in its visual presentation, it’s surprising that something so detailed can blend in seamlessly with the world – but it is a challenge. 

“I have to focus more on their abstract qualities, and although I am limited in terms of resolution, I still have all the colors of sRGB to play with,” Zetterstrand explains. “That’s a luxury that early pixel artists could only dream of. The process [with these paintings] was partly about finding that sweet spot where you can see that they actually depict something, while still leaving enough for the imagination.” 

“...the most challenging ones never made it to the final batch. I had to toss several works away for various reasons.”

As if thinking about colors and motifs wasn’t enough, Zetterstrand also had to consider the resolution and size of his work. Minecraft paintings are downscaled to fit the game, and a misstep can cause them to resemble a mess of jpeg artifacts. Zetterstrand tells us that this meant working the paintings almost like a pixel artist, manipulating them pixel by pixel. And while I'm not one to scoff at artwork resembling pizzas, he would rather get it right. So how do you approach a painting when you must take downscaling into account? 

“That is a very good question. When talking about classical painting, it is sometimes said that a good composition should be able to be appreciated even from a distance. And a common painting trick is to look at your motif squinting, so that the details disappear, and you see the masses of light and dark easier. That is similar to when you shrink down a painting, the detail is blurred, and the abstract qualities are emphasized.” 

One painting that was especially tricky to get right  was 'Finding', because of the aspect ratio change. Here, Zetterstrand had to pick the composition apart and puzzle it back together to get it to work. “It was also a bit challenging to get the right balance of sharpness in the blurry parts, so that it didn’t feel too out of place among the sharp pixels of the game world.” 

“But the most challenging ones never made it to the final batch. I had to toss several works away for various reasons. Some, I worked on for a long time only to realize they were bad, didn’t translate well, or just felt wrong. I also have to give credit to Jasper. We had a great collaboration, and I felt very welcome and trusted to do my thing, which made all the difference.” 

Challenging or not: the game now has 15 new paintings made by Kristoffer Zetterstrand – enough for a dozen exhibitions to keep our art senses tingling for the foreseeable future! And Zetterstrand himself has already moved on from this project to work on his own, non-Minecraft related, exhibition. 

"I will be exhibiting at the National Museum of Sweden this autumn. One of my works is part of their exhibition 'The romantic eye / Romantikens blick'. I’m looking forward to that, as I get to exhibit together with 19th century painters like Delacroix and Caspar David Friedrich – whose work is a very big inspiration for one of the old Minecraft paintings.” 

Curious about which painting it could be? Find these paintings soon in testing versions of Minecraft and challenge yourself to some interior decorating or create your own exhibition! Kristoffer Zetterstrand’s outstanding art is waiting for your subjective reactions, preferably an “Ah!” rather than the “What the heck am I looking at?!” 

Per Landin
Written By
Per Landin
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