Tutorial: Painting Tyranids

Tyranids: The 'Blue Crab' and 'Desert Flower' Schemes
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Two examples of the 'blue crab' scheme taken to a display level.
Main Colours:
  • VMC #914 Green Ochre (or GW Desert Yellow)
  • VMC #847 Dark Sand
  • VMC #837 Light Sand (or GW Bleached Bone)
  • VMC #918 Ivory (or a mix of GW White and Bleached Bone)
  • Mix of thinned black and green (GW Chaos Black and GW Goblin Green work fine)
  • Reaper Master Series Violet Red (or any red or purple)
  • VMC #803 Brown Rose (or GW Dwarf Flesh)
Patterning Colours:
  • GW Chaos Black
  • Reaper Master Series Ritterlich Blue (or GW Midnight Blue)
  • GW Regal Blue
  • VMC #965 Prussian Blue
  • VMC #887 Brown Violet (or mix of GW Goblin Green and black)
  • GW Flesh Wash
any people have asked me how I painted my tyranids, particularly the zoanthrope from my Gamesday Atlanta 2005 entry and the flying hive tyrant from my Gamesday Atlanta 2006 entry (both of which can be found in the Showcase section of this website). Of course I've been willing to share (and had several lengthy paragraphs that were cut and pasted into replies), but I've long wanted to put the process together in a more easily accessible tutorial format. And here we are!

There's a bit of a story behind the colour scheme. Having been a long time fan of the tyranids ever since the Rogue Trader days of hunter-slayers, zoats, and screamer-killers, I was ecstatic to see the new plastics released during the 3rd release of Warhammer 40K. Naturally, I bought quite a few. My previous paint scheme was straight out of the 2nd edition Codex -- a wild riot of blues, reds, purples, greens, pinks, and blacks, with tan carapaces here and there. After years of gaming with them, they had become something of an eyesore. I wanted something a lot more natural for my new 'nids, as well as something a little more coherent.

I experimented, mostly with colour schemes straight from the then newest codex. Some were dead flesh grey, some were blue and red. Nothing really struck me, so the vast majority of tyranids lay unpainted for a few years.

When Gamesday Atlanta 2005 rolled around, I had (for once) finished my entries ahead of schedule and had a couple of days to squeeze in another entry. A zoanthrope yanked off the shelf, a quick semi-random google search for sea crabs as inspiration, and the colour scheme was rapidly born. My indecision was vanquished since this would "only be a Gamesday entry, not the final army scheme."

Normally I wouldn't bore folks with such a tale, but I feel it underlines two very important qualities about dealing with painting blocks: first, look to nature for inspiration, and secondly -- and most importantly -- don't overthink things, just pick up a brush and do it!

Inspiration from Nature

The blue crab basis for the original zoanthrope.
This was the image that inspired the zoanthrope's pattern. As you can see, my later tyranids have evolved, with the bone colour becoming more predominate than the blue.
As I've said in other tutorials, nature is an excellent teacher. I knew that I wanted my tyranids to be very organic, so I searched for some good patterns that occur in nature. Crustaceans and reptiles in particular caught my eye. I also wanted something that had a bright colour that you didn't see often in tyranids, leaning heavily towards blues and greens. With those parameters in mind, in the end I finally settled on the callinectes sapidus (or blue crab).

The rich colours of the blue crab should be apparent. Blue is obvious, but one should also note the various shades of orange, red, yellow, and green over a bone-coloured shell. In larger images, you can make out subtle shades of purple, brown, and black. The best way I've found to mimic this natural richness of colour is with an assortment of thin washes. Since washes are easier to work with over a lighter colour, we'll start this process with the bone shade and darken it from there.

Incidently, you've likely noticed that my tyranids exhibit two extensive colour scheme evolutions, one which is closer to the original 'blue crab' scheme and the second which is more of a 'desert flower' scheme. A lot of this was due to experimentation, though I have to admit some of was due to the time constraints of painting a dozen gaunts. Despite this wide variety, they still appear as a more-or-less unified army when set on the tabletop together. This tutorial will cover techniques used for both.
A variety of colour schemes from the same army.
From left to right: Tyranid warrior with basic patterning, a Hive Tyrant with more elaborate patterning, a Tyranid warrior with a 'fast' version of the blue crab scheme, and a Mieotic Spore Mine in the blue-crab scheme.
The Basic Scheme

From white primer to a thin base coat. Alternating between wetbrushing and washes. Final stages of last washes, and ready for other colours!
The first six stages of tyranid painting establish the basic colour. Later steps will enrich the colour through a series of washes.
Regardless of what the final scheme will be -- either 'desert flower' or 'blue crab' -- the basis is very similar. We'll use white primer, since we want the colours to be very vivid and bright. Over the white, a thin almost wash-like coat of VMC #914 Green Ochre is applied. Don't worry about coverage. There will be many additional layers.

I should also point out something, even if it's quite obvious from the photos. When painting the larger tyranids, and in fact all sizeable miniatures, I more often than not mount the components on brass rod or corks and paint them seperately. Only after a spray of clear coat do I assemble them. This makes things so much easier it almost feels like cheating.

The next stage is a preliminary shading, handled with a wash-thin mix of a dark ruddy brown (such as GW Bestial Brown or VMC #983 Flat Earth) and black. This is the same Bone Wash formula (courtesy of Jen Haley): Three parts medium brown (EX: GW Bestial Brown), One part black, thinned to milk consistency.bone wash mentioned in other tutorials. It's such a handy wash to have that I mixed two bottles of it and keep them near my other washes.

After the wash has dried, we use a "wet drybrush" technique -- basically the same as drybrushing, but using a moist brush and not wiping off as much paint -- and apply another layer of VMC #914 Green Ochre. Even for showcase quality projects, I prefer the rather sloppy but faster "wet drybrushing" to do this. Taking the time to carefully do this with a traditional paint technique doesn't actually improve the finished quality.

In the next stage, however, we do need to decide if this is going to be showcase piece or not since layers from here on will impact the finished result. Here we begin highlighting, either with a mix of an appropriate paint (VMC Ivory or GW Bleached Bone to the base of VMC Green Ochre) or with a layer of an intermediate colour (such as VMC Dark Sand). If this is just another body for the swarm, the "wet drybrushing" will suffice, but care should be taken if it's intended to sit in the display case.

You need not take the highlights all the way to your lightest shade at this point as we'll be adding more washes. In fact, that's the next step.

Time for another one of those washes I swear by: GW Goblin Green and black, thinned down heavily with Future Floor Wax. I use this on all sorts of miniatures, and it works fantastically over everything from metallic paints to animal skintones to standard shading. We'll apply this into the deepest recesses of the tyranid as well as any areas that should be enhanced, such as around the teeth and beneath carapace ridges.

Though not particularly thrilling, this easy-to-match tan scheme forms the basis for both my tyranid schemes as well as having the potential for a tremendous many more. I'm hard pressed to spot a shade in my paint collection that wouldn't look fine next to it. As such, you shouldn't limit yourself to just the two schemes I'm discussing in this tutorial, but experiment with other colours for your own Hive Fleet.

On the next page, I'll focus on how I handle the simpler 'desert flower' scheme and move onto the more complex 'blue crab' version afterward.

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