How to Paint Everything: Lion El’Jonson

In our How to Paint Everything series, we take a look at different armies of the Warhammer universe, examine their history and heraldry, and look at several different methods for painting them. In this chapter, we’re looking at how to paint the Primarch of the first legion, Lion El’Jonson. Here’s Greg (obviously) and Kevin (avid Ultramarines fan? We don’t understand either).

Lion El’Jonson, Primarch of the Dark Angels

It’s been a bit of a wait for the Dark Angels, but we’re pretty sure it was worth it. The Dark Angels only got full legion rules recently, a full nine books and seven years into Forge World’s experiment in making Warhammer even more expensive and difficult to play. LordTwisted covered the Lion’s rules and background in The Horus Heresy Legion Overview: The Dark Angels, Part Four, so we won’t go into it too far here, but the Lion’s main deal since his introduction has been that he is emphatically not a people person.

The Lion was raised in the jungles of Caliban, and spent his formative years murdering wild animals in the woods, before being raised as a knight and eventually taking charge of the entire planet. When the Emperor showed up, he took his legion and went out Great Crusading, eventually tallying a record of victories that few could match. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses – beyond his well-known dust up where he sucker-punched Leman Russ, the Ragdan Xenocide got a lot of people killed, and he also pulled a major boner in the early days of the Heresy by handing off a ship full of Ordinatii to Perturabo, of all people – but in general, pretty good legion.

Jonson has never been portrayed as a weirdo dickhead, or particularly hostile toward his brothers (before the Heresy, anyway – he became incredibly hostile after). Difficult to relate to, yes, but not so much anti-social as just asocial, focused entirely on putting in work and not really worrying about what anyone thinks of him. A great quote from the Horus Heresy novels describes him as taciturn and unnerving, which is very much in keeping with the character of his legion. The Lion wouldn’t go out of his way to stir up trouble, but you get the sense that if someone pitched a plan he didn’t agree with, he’d just smile and nod, and then do whatever it was he felt would best get the job done anyway, without bothering to inform anyone. Loner energy, but in a cool way, not a Corax way.

Which is, I suppose, why he took it upon himself to spend most of the Heresy running around wailing on the Night Lords as a legion, and Conrad Kurze personally. He took the position as de facto Warmaster of the Imperium Secundus in between razing traitor homeworlds and apparently killing Kurze three or four times (it never seemed to stick), but less because he was interested in empire building and more because it suited his needs at the moment. After doing their own thing for a while, Lion El’Jonson and the Dark Angels finally showed up at Terra late to the party, and missed out on the siege.

We all know what happened with the Dark Angels after that, and it was really kind of inevitable – Jonson might have been logical, but using people as tools doesn’t engender enduring loyalty – that they’d roll up on Caliban and end up having to blast it to smithereens. The Dark Angels would carry on as one of the foremost defenders of the Imperium, but the Lion himself was presumed dead after having his own personal Siege of Terra moment with his own Chaotic failson. As his power nap rolls into its eleventh millennium, we’re stuck with his 30k incarnation as the only model and rules, a state that’s unlikely to change any time soon. Which is honestly fine, because the model we got is one of the best models Forge World has ever produced and far and away the best Primarch model to build, paint, and display.(1)

One of the best bits of the model is that the Lion Sword has been accurately sculpted to match the one Cypher carries, which is a nod to the lore that we love to see. Unfortunately the Lion Helm looks nothing like the one Azrael’s weirdo friend carries, but that’s fine because the one we got looks much better, and at any rate it’s unlikely to ever see the table because the bare-headed sculpt is great.

Lion el’Jonson is a big boy, even compared to a recent Primaris model. Credit: Greg Chiasson

Where to Read More

The Lion and the Dark Angels show up in a number of Black Library books, but unfortunately several of them are regarded as among the worst of the Horus Heresy series.

  • Descent of Angels, by Mitchel Scanlon. Weird knights doing knight things, and they barely go into outer space until toward the end. Tells the story of the Lion meeting the Emperor, and the early days of the Dark Angels. Corrode: I would comfortably put this among the worst books I’ve ever read, and it may in fact top that list.
  • Fallen Angels, by Mike Lee. The Lion goes out on the insanely cool Invincible Reason and wrecks some Chaos joes, while Luther sits at home and mopes about it.
  • Angels of Caliban, by Gav Thorpe. Worth a look just to move away from Caliban and get a look at Jonson and the Dark Angels busting up the entire Imperium Secundus because they hate Night Lords so much. They get up to some pretty cool shenanigans here.
  • Lion El’Jonson: Lord of the First, by David Guymer. Jonson’s entry in the Primarchs series, it deals with the run up to Ullanor in the latter days of the Great Crusade. Haven’t read it!
  • The Horus Heresy Book Nine: Crusade has some good fluff about the Thramas Crusade, where the Dark Angels just ruined the Night Lords merciless.

Playing the Lion

Well for starters, you have to play 30k.

If you do, for some reason, play 30k, Jonson is a stone-cold murder machine. He probably won’t beat the top-tier Primarchs 1v1, but he has a choice of chainsword or regular sword, and can comfortably body most things. This has been covered in more detail already, but the Wolf Blade is a S10 chainsword, and the Lion Blade is a regular sword with Fleshbane, which makes the chainsword probably better, but it’s not as iconic, so we recommend the Lion Blade. Also, it has no in-game effect, but the bare-head sculpt is so powerful that you’re doing him a disservice by making the man wear his helmet.

Painting the Lion

Like most Primarchs, El’Jonson comes on a 40mm gaming base, which slots into a 60mm diorama base depicting him owning the hell out of a bunch of Night Lord chumps. For this article we’re focusing mostly on the smaller base, and the Lion himself, because neither of us felt like painting the display base. If you want some tips on how to paint that, How to Paint Everything: Night Lords might be useful.

Greg’s Method

The first thing to deal with here is whether to assemble the model first, or do subassemblies. Given the pose of the model – one arm across his chest, a huge swishing cloak – it made sense to build him in parts and then assemble later. As I learned from my Astraeus, the resin blocks that parts are cast on make excellent painting handles, so I left them attached and touched up the missing paint later. Fortunately, the contact points with the sprue tend to be the actual bits where the parts glue together, so you’d want to leave them unpainted away, which minimized cleanup. Whether this was done on purpose or through blind luck, we’re not sure, but it depends on your opinion of Forge World.

A slight annoyance is that, due to the way the backpack and cloak assemble, there’s quite a few subassemblies required, often just a single piece, in order for them all to slot together properly.

For myself, I left the scabbard and front/rear hanging tabards off, as well as the cloak, fur trim, iron halo, and back pack. I attached the right shoulder to the body, and then glued the left arm, left pauldron, sword, and left forearm together as one piece. The hip armor and a few small pieces were attached to the body, and then he was ready to prime. I forgot to take pictures at that point, but here are the subassemblies with some paint on them:

I decided to do the model in normal 30k colors, so black armor and red details, but I wanted to include some green as a nod to my 40k Dark Angels, which I incorporated on the robe stitching. Most of the ornate decorations are in gold, but the armor trim is metal, and I decided not to do his weapon as my usual blue power sword, and just painted it as a regular sword. I don’t know why exactly, I just thought it might look tacky having a big blue sword. That’s a look that works well in 40k, but 30k models, despite being pretty much the same thing, have a different aesthetic. I genuinely got confused when I went looking for purity seals and skulls, and found none on the model. Anyway, the colors I used (all Vallejo Game Color, unless otherwise noted:

  • Armor: I primed white, since that was the primer I had, so I started with a coat of Citadel Contrast Black Templar just to get the base layer down. Armor joints were Sombre Grey with Nuln Oil. The plates got a highlight of Cold Grey, and a second highlight of Ghost Grey, then a Nuln wash and another highlit of Ghost Grey, before cleaning up with Citadel Chaos Black.
  • Robes: Based with Khaki, then layered everywhere except the recesses with Bone White, before getting a wash of Agrax and more layers of Bone White, and then Dead White on the raised bits. This takes forever.
  • Metal: Base of Gunmetal, Nuln wash, layer Chainmail Silver, and an edge highlight of Silver, which is a really nice bright metal.
  • Gold: Glorious Gold, wash of Citadel Carroburg Crimson, and then randomly drybrush Polished Gold on some of the parts and Bright Bronze on others – there’s enough gold on this dude that I wanted some variation, so for example the pauldron trim is a different shade from the lion head in the center. If you want more depth to it, around the bolts or inside the lion mouth on the shoulder, you can selectively hit it with Agrax to really deepen that.
  • Red: This went on the chest, knee, and shoulder logos. It’s Gory Red, Bloody Red, Agrax, and Hot Orange. The orange is pretty thin, so a few coats of it will make the red pop without making it too orange. This is bad if you wanted actual orange, but it’s great for just brightening up small red parts.
  • Green: Sick Green, highlight Livery Green. There’s not a lot of green on here so no point going nuts with it.
  • Cape: I don’t love the VGC reds! But they’re also all I have, so here we are. Basically this is the technique from the white robes, but the colors from the red logos, and due to the size of his enormous cape and the less-than-amazing paint coverage, it took approximately one hundred hours. Gory, Bloody, Agrax, Bloody, and then a tiny amount of Hot Orange on the hem and the logos/stitching in the corners. I didn’t punch this up as much as the other reds because I wanted it a little more muted, but it resulted in a nice deep red.
  • Fur: I cheated on this one. Citadel Apothecary White, then drybrushed Bone White. The little claws attached to the end got painted Bone White, then washed with Agrax and highlit up to Dead White.
  • Belts/Leather: Beasty Brown, wash Agrax, highlight Leather Brown.
  • Oh yeah, the face and hair: Paint the entire head with Bronze Flesh Tone, wash the whole thing with Agrax. The hair then gets a drybrush of Bronze again, but the face gets a nice layering of Bronze and then finer layers of Elf Skin Tone. Not as blonde as the FW version, but I don’t love any of my yellows, and this still worked pretty well.

That’s a lot of paint, and all in all it took about 8-10 hours to get him done, but here’s some pictures:

Lion el’Jonson. Credit: Greg Chiasson

Lion el’Jonson. Credit: Greg Chiasson

Lion el’Jonson. Credit: Greg Chiasson

Lion el’Jonson. Credit: Greg Chiasson

Kevin’s Method

As noted above, The Lion is the best Primarch model Forge World has produced. Both from a “holy crap, this looks cool and I want to build, paint, and write it up even though I’m not a huge Dark Angels fan and actually need to practice painting Dark Angels” perspective, and also from an ease of assembly. The first clue that this model was going to be special was upon opening the box and finding…


Unlike the rest of the Primarchs, where you get maybe a small card that tells you where to put pturges and tassels that MAYBE could go somewhere or somewhere else, this model has big instructions that explains where to put almost everything.

Furthermore, unlike most of the other Primarchs, the Lion’s sculpt is relatively intuitive. There are not the random tiny pturges or tassels or bits (save one, which we’ll get to below) that leave one squinting at the card or Forge World’s website.

If you were going to pick a Primarch to build, I’d really start with The Lion to get a feel for the process.

It should not surprise you to learn that my method is actually pretty similar to Greg’s. After all, during the construction and painting of my model, I was talking with him pretty often about it and batting ideas off of him. The first major similarity is subassemblies: I love painting in subassemblies, and Greg is right that this model really ought to be painted in sub-assemblies.

I primed the Lion in two batches: the head, cape, and furry bits were primed in Grey Seer, and the rest was primed in Chaos Black. If I had to do it over again, I would have left the rear loincloth off.

The Lion, raw but mostly cut
Subassemblies to prime black. Credit: Kevin Stillman

When I do a character model, I always start with the head.  The face of the model is what will make or break the model, so…

The Lion’s Head – Credit: Kevin Stillman

Gregnote: I actually started with the head too, because Kevin showed me his and I immediately had to paint it, though I do think his came out a tiny bit better.

I primed Grey Seer, used Guilliman flesh contrast, and then highlighted with Cadian Fleshtone and Kislev Flesh.  The hair was a mix of thinned-down Agrax Earthshade, Seraphim Sepia, and a touch of Iyaden Yellow.  The eyes are courtesy my trusty Micron Pen.

Now with a glorious looking head, it was time to paint the main body.  Greg commented one of the pitfalls with the Forge World studio model: the main colors were Black and White.  While it definitely looks cool, I wanted to incorporate more color into the model. I used Caliban green as the base color for the Lion’s cloth, and highlighted it up with a blend of Caliban Green and Death Guard Green. This was done to show the connection to the 40K Dark Angels.

For the armor, I did NOT want to do Black because two other Primarchs have Black Armor.  First, I drybrushed the armor with Scale 75 Black Metal and then a drybrush of Iron Hands, because I wanted the trim to be metal. Then, for the armor plating, I used a mix of Stegadon Scale Green and Abaddon Black to make it into an off-black.  It was shaded with Black Templar and highlighted with Dawnstone and VGC Wolf Grey.

The golds on the robes were Retributor Armor washed with Druchii Violet, and highlighted with Liberator Gold.  The Gold on the armor was Balthazar Gold washed with Cryptec Armorshade Gloss, and highlighted with Liberator.

Lion in Progress. Credit: Kevin Stillman

For the winged emblems on the armor and the Wolf Blade, I painted them Stormhost Silver and then layered them with Flesh Tearers red.

Most of the rest of the model was done similar to Greg – I used Skeleton Horde to paint the fur that goes on the cape, and Seraphim Sepia to paint the nails.  The exterior of the cape was painted Flesh Tearers Red over Grey Seer, and highlighted up with Evil Sunz Skarlet and Wild Rider Red, with a smidge of Fire Dragon Bright.   The Interior with Rakarth Flesh and highlighted up to Pallid Witch Flesh. I drybrushed the layers for the interior cape, because I love drybrushing.

The Lion’s Cape. Credit: Kevin Stillman

Once you get the cape, head, and armored body painted, you’re mostly done.  Pick whichever sword you like (2), and viola!

The First: Lion El’Jonson. Credit: Kevin Stillman

One other note: the Lion comes with his Plasma Pistol, the Fusil Actinaeus.  Neither of us attached this model to our Lions because 1) There are no good attachment points for the gun 2) the instructions suggest putting it near his butt, so it would be hidden by the cape, and 3) It would make a great relic Plasma Pistol for a Primaris hero.

The Lion and Roboute Guilliman. The Lion is bigger. Credit: Kevin Stillman


Wrapping up

Hell yeah.

We’re biased here, but Lion El’jonson is a wonderful model. If your only experience with Forge World is their older superheavy tanks, this is entirely different – the instructions are actually useful, the details are crisp, and most of the parts fit together fine, though a few did take a little trimming. We wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a first attempt at working with resin, but you could probably get by with it if you did want it to be your first model. With a little time and effort, the Lion is an amazing display model, and will look great at the head of your Dark Angels legion force.

And as always, if you have any questions or feedback, or you just want to share your pretty models with us, feel free to drop us a note in the comments below, or email us at


(1) I’m not a Dark Angels player or a fan – the Lion destroyed a city on Macragge, after all – but damn this model is nice.

(2) A future Hobby Heresy from Greg will explain what to do with the leftover Wolf Blade if you choose to model The Lion with the Lion Sword. Gregnote: wait what