Tutorial: Painting Tyranids

Tyranids: The 'Blue Crab' and 'Desert Flower' Schemes
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Subtle shades of purple, red, and flesh add a richness to the figure. The addition of spotting creates a naturalistic effect.
From the basic tan, the final 'desert flower' scheme quickly takes shape.
his is a good time to work on the carapaces. All of my carapaces, whether for showcase or just tabletop troopers, are painted with the streak painting method. It's a rapid way of building up natural looking armour and has the added benefit of being extremely easy to control.

Since streak painting is a tutorial in and of itself, I won't go into a great amount of detail on the process. Essentially the surface is built up with gradually lighter and lighter 'streaks' of paint, applied with a thin brush. Take a moment to note how the carapace fits in with the rest of the tan scheme, however. The colours used are exactly the same, but the faux texture from the streak method as well as a final highlight of pure white makes the plates stand out from the skin.

Let's add some further distinction between carapace and skin. Using a very thin wash of VMC #803 Brown Rose (or GW Dwarf Flesh), shade under the carapace plates. I've done this very lightly on the example carnifex, but there's no reason to be shy about this step. On my zoanthrope, I took it to an extreme, even going so far as to treat it like normal human flesh. The only thing to watch out for is to make sure the transistion from tan to flesh isn't too abrupt, so build the layers up thinly.

For an even stronger appearance, use Reaper Violet Red (or GW Warlock Purple) as a thin wash over the deepest areas. We'll be focusing on almost the same areas as the previous black-green wash, but without worrying with the deepest recesses too much. Important areas to shade this way are around the teeth and in creases of skin.

One thing I've grown fond of doing is adding a deep olive-green shade to the tails and legs of my larger tyranids. My preferred shade is VMC #887 Brown Violet (or mix of GW Goblin Green and black. Though this is an optional stage, it does add a subtle aquatic or fish-like quality to the colour choice. You can notice this on the tails of my Hive Tyrant and carnifex, and to a lesser extent on the malanthrope.

The final stages are simple. Once we're happy with whatever additional colouring we've chosen, highlight everything as you would normally do, paying close attention to the uppermost areas around joints and eyes.

"Now you wait just a minute, Mr. Tyranid Painter," you may say. "What's with those spots all over the carnifex?" Don't worry! I'll tell all. In fact, that brings us to the next chapter of the tutorial.


Nothing makes a tyranid swarm stand out like distinctive patterning. The sad thing is that most people avoid doing it, thinking it's too time consuming or that they lack the skill. Not so; it's a very simple process. The trick is to break it down into easy to manage stages.

Whether used on the smallest ripper or the largest carnifex, my 'desert flower' scheme pattern is done in the same way. The carapace should be completely finished before beginning any patterning -- after painting the pattern, it'll be harder to further highlight the carapaces except on the very edges. If you're especially worried about making a mistake, you may want to dullcote the tyranid first though I've never needed to do so myself.

First, decide on the pattern style. You can take another que from nature and try your hand at copying photography, or you can just wing it as you go along (the latter being the method I must admit to using). The simplest patterns would be elongated triangles or jagged stripes. Using black and a fine-tipped brush, or a pencil, trace the outermost points of the pattern. For the sake of symmetry, it helps to trace in a small section of one side and then the reverse at the same time. Continue to trace in the shape until the outline is closed, and then fill in the entire thing with solid colour.

Once you have the pattern finished in all black, it gets super easy. Use a dark colour of your choice and add another layer to the center of the pattern. Continue adding more lighter and lighter layers to the center of the pattern. Make sure you leave a thin strip of the previous layer visible with each step. For my tyranids, the blue pattern is GW Regal Blue (sometimes washed with the black/green mix), highlighted with Regal Blue again, and then Vallejo #965 Prussian Blue.

A simple form of patterning.
A simple yet effective means of patterning is to simply add small, dark dots along the skin beneath the carapace and in joints.
For variety, sometimes I use the streak method to add the lighter shades over the black pattern. Other times, I use a type of pointillism to give it a texture. This is readily apparent on the carapace patterns of my carnifex. It's not totally necessary for the vast hordes of gaunts. Those little guys are perfectly happy with plain-jane layering.

Speaking of little points, the absolutely simplest way of adding patterning is to just dab dots along the fleshy parts. Despite its simplicity, it's quite striking and easy to do even on hordes of gaunts. The main thing to be concerned with is placement. I prefer "dotting up" only areas beneath carapaces and near joints (such as shoulders, hips, or around necks), but clearly this is only a personal preference.

For pure speed, you can substitute your brush with a pigmented pen such as a Le Plume or a Pigma Micron. You can absolutely tear through the patterning work on a ten strong brood of gaunts using a Le Plume pen. On the other hand, nothing beats the versatility and control of a good brush. For fancy patterning on a showcase level tyranid, you'll definitely want to stick with a good brush.

Wagging Tongues

Layers of reds, purples, and fleshtones add some distinctive relief.
Varying shades of red and flesh can create a welcome relief from an otherwise monotonous colour scheme.
Now that they've been given shiny new carapace patterns, our bloodthirsty alien monsters are just about ready to swarm. What they're missing is something that exhibits their violent and ever-changing natures. What they need are bloodied maws and hungry tongues.

One of the details I get asked about specifically is the wagging tongue on my Hive Tyrant (as seen in the accompanying photo). Modeling wise, this is nothing more than the acid maw biomorph from the carnifex kit, heated and bent back around. The colours are actually deceptively simple, too. It's the colour combination that gets people: Take a moment to roll your tongue back and look in the mirror. Pretty, huh? Notice how it's a bumpy lump of purple flesh interlaced with a lot of visible veins? This is the look I mimicked for the tyrant's tongue.

To duplicate this, basecoat the tongue with a dark flesh colour such as VMC #803 Brown Rose (or GW Dwarf Flesh) and mix in a little of your darkest red (perhaps even a tiny touch of black). Highlight up by gradually adding a bit more VMC Ivory or GW Bleached Bone, but don't just layer the highlights. Dapple them on, much as we did with the tiny brown pattern spots on the tyranid's skin, but use a bigger brush and don't be scared to be a little sloppy.

After two or three layers of dappled highlights, use your finest brush to make tiny GW Goblin Green veins. These should just be implied as only the barest wisps of paint really need to be visible, but don't worry if you screw it up a bit. Dapple a bit more flesh over the error and try again. If you're feeling adventurous, highlight the veins with a mix of Goblin Green and Ivory, or add veins of other colours (blue or red, for example).

You can leave it at that stage, or take it one step further with a thin translucent wash of the mid-range flesh colour over the whole thing. This will unify the dappling effect and make the veins more subtle, as if they're under the flesh. Later, after the entire figure has been given a good dullcoat, cover the tongue and mouth area with a generous covering of brush-on gloss. Slobberific!

Before moving on to the last page of this tutorial, I'll should have a quick word about the eyes: Most of my tyranids end up with shining eyes painted in the same way as gems from my gemstone tutorial. There's a lot more that could be said for eyes as evidenced by that creepy central carnifex eye seen above, but I'm going to save that for a later tutorial.

For now, let's move on to the promised specifics of the blue crab scheme.

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