Painting Organics

It’s a New Year, and all the days ahead are like a blank canvas.

I’ve recently begun a new project painting an army of Tyranids, the swarming, all-consuming alien race of the Warhammer 40k Universe. Unlike my other projects, which have been vehicular or armored machinations, these ‘nid models are all organic, fleshy, scaly creatures of various shapes and sizes.

It’s a fairly large collection that I’m painting; more than 11,000 points by estimates. So, in total, the challenge isn’t just in the technical aspects, but also in the logistics of getting this entire army completed for the client in a timely fashion.

When I approach painting skin, muscle, and bone, I think about the overall concept. And the best way i found to conceptualize a color scheme and overall “look” is to use word association. What comes to mind when you think Tyranids, for example.






And from these free associated words, the idea of how to paint the models as a whole comes to me. What colors evoke these “words”? All of art is about expression, evoking a feeling or a story, and so this process of using grammar seems like a natural approach to start.



Without getting too itty-gritty, I felt black, blue, and purple, the same colors found in a bad bruise would be a great place to start. Really, looking for colors that seem to go together in the real environment is a nice way to find great color combinations, e.g., a skin bruise or laceration.

Then, with the power of the internet, using a search of Google Images (that sometimes gives you way more than you want or dare to see, even) you’re able to gather the useful reference images for beginning a project.

In general, I don’t paint with a strict outline or a solid plan. I don’t think to myself, this color goes here or there. Instead, I just slap on the paint in the general vicinity of where I think that color should go and using the reference images and my own imagination as a guide.

Roll with it…

After a while, it looks like crap. And most of the time, it takes a lot of work to figure out how to turn the mess I made into something less messy. Working in thin layers is a key technique to painting with this approach. It lets you make mistakes without losing details on the sculpt. I use water as my primary thinning medium, and a bit of glazing medium (Golden Brand) to keep the paint from drying too quickly.

For living creatures that I want to look more realistic, I’ll varnish in a matte coat and then use an oil wash (a technique described elsewhere) consisting of black, red, and purple. This technique is fun and easy, though a bit messy. Oils let you work at your own pace and control where paint needs to go. It is generally transparent so it doesn’t hide the underpainting you’ve worked on. Importantly, because oil paint is viscous, it’s great for doing splatter effects and adding texture, such as blood or gore.

After applying oil paints, it is important to make sure it cures, which can take several days. I sometimes use a hair-dryer to accelerate this process. When the oil is essentially dry, that is, I can touch the model and not feel it being sticky, I’ll varnish over the entire piece with Testor’s Dullcote (awesome stuff). Two or three layers of this enamel varnish will keep everything in piece, keep the contrast high, and protect the model from minor dings and travel.

Of course, I step back when I’m done and examine the piece from every angle to make sure it all looks according to my expectation. If I’m missing some detail or think some aspect could use more paint or effect, I won’t hesitate to go back to work. In the end, it’s an organic process that could go on and on.

For a model that sits on a 120mm diameter base, I have been known to take between 5-80 hours before I am happy with the job. On average, I find I need about 30 hours to finish a piece as large as the Tyranid model shown in the photo.