Painting Organics: How-To Paint Warhammer 40k Tyranids

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 Tyranid models are all organic, fleshy, scaly creatures of various shapes and sizes.

“How do you paint so many models?” someone asked me.

It’s a fairly large Warhammer army that I’m painting. More than 11,000 army points by my estimate. 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.

In this article, I take a philisophical approach to describing how I paint organic models. I use the Games Workshop Tyranid model line as an example.

Thoughts on Painting Monsters (Organics)

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.

Painting Organics: Brief How-To Overview With Warhammer 40k Tyranids
Pair of Tyranid Trygon

What comes to mind when you think Tyranids?

  • Dark
  • Bloody
  • Inhumane
  • Savage
  • Primal

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.

Color Choice to Evoke Ideas

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.

No Plan, Just Roll With It!

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.

Painting Organics: Brief How-To Overview With Warhammer 40k Tyranids
Side view – look at that simple color scheme!

Key Approach: Thin Layers

Working in thin layers is a key technique to painting with this unplanned approach.

Thin layers 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.

Use Oil Paints

This oil based technique is fun and easy, though a bit messy (see another project where I used oil washes).

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.

Painting Organics: Brief How-To Overview With Warhammer 40k Tyranids
My oil paints get a lot of work done

After applying oil paints (my favorite black color), it is important to make sure it cures, which can take several days. I sometimes use a hair-dryer to accelerate this process.


Varnish the Model

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 (for more about my recommended varnishes, see here).

Two or three layers of this varnish will keep everything sealed, keep the contrast high, and protect the model from minor dings.

Take a Different Perspective

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.

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.

In the end, it’s an organic process that could go on and on.

Painting Organics: Brief How-To Overview With Warhammer 40k Tyranids
Top view – a bit of airbrushing and dry brushing really pulled out those details


I hope you enjoyed the way I think about painting organic models. The steps I used here were a broad brush way of how to paint creatures. Some of the approaches I use here apply to a variety of different figures, but the general idea is the same.

I like to start with identifying an experience or feeling and choose colors that help express these ideas. Even if the paint job is messy, but I achieve my objective of evoking a unique sense from the viewer, then I consider that a success.

Painting miniatures is an art after all. Just go for it and have fun!

Painting Organics: Brief How-To Overview With Warhammer 40k Tyranids

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