How to Paint Everything – Thousand Sons Chaos Space Marines

In our How to Paint Everything Series we cover how to paint well, everything, with a look at different methods and techniques from different painters and with an eye for different skill levels. In this article, we’re covering how to paint the Thousand Sons, the most sorcerously inclined legion of Chaos Space Marines.

Although first mentioned during the Rogue Trader era in the Lost and the Damned book, the Thousand Sons really rose to prominence in Warhammer 40k’s second edition Codex: Chaos, receiving an expanded backstory and unique units to represent that the bulk of their faction had been transformed into animated suits of power armor known as Rubric Marines. It wasn’t until late in 7th edition that they’d truly come into their own, however – the faction received some massive support in the form of custom models. This included Magnus the Red, the first plastic primarch model to be released for 40k.

Since that time the Thousand Sons have become their own standalone faction, with a number of unique models and rules that mark them apart from their less-psychic cousins. The army now features a number of unique characters and units, such as the twisted Tzaangors and the Mutalith Vortex Beast. There’s a lot of variety in the army beyond just the animated suits of armor known as rubric marines.

Paintwise, the Thousand Sons have some of the most detailed power armor in the game, with lots of thin trim, striped patterns, and magical flame effects. These details can make painting the faction a daunting process for newer players, and can make painting Thousand Sons models a time-consuming process.

Covered in this Article

  • The basic elements of Thousand Sons models and how to paint them – from gold trim to arcane fire
  • Different schemes for the Thousand Sons, with different techniques for painting them
  • Special units for the faction, such as Tzaangors and Magnus the Red

Gold Trim Header

Gold Trim - Click to Expand

If you’re going to be painting the Thousand Sons you’re in for a lot of time spent painting the trim on their armor. The Thousand Sons have a lot of intricate, flame-like details on their armor trim, which itself is traditionally painted gold. This can make painting them a very daunting task, especially for beginners. If you’re looking for a guide on painting Gold Trim, you can find our full guide here, with a variety of techniques and examples.

If you’re in more of a hurry, here are two quick examples based on how you want to undercoat and prime the model.

Method 1: Priming the Model Gold (the GW Method)

There’s a certain train of thought that it’s easier to paint models like Thousand Sons and Chaos Space Marines with lots of trim if you prime them the color of the trim, then fill in the armor colors later. This idea has particular weight if you’re going to be painting the armor a flat color, and aren’t liable to hit the trim and require a lot of clean-up.

Step 1: Prime the model gold

The easiest part of this. Prime the model whatever gold you’re looking to use. In this case I used GW’s Retributor Armour. Clean up any spots that need a bit of extra gold.

Step 2: Wash the gold

The next step is applying a wash to the gold. This will shade the gold, but also tone down some of the shininess, giving it a more burnished look. We can bring that back up later, but for now we want to create dark recesses in the gold parts of the model. For the GW’s Thousand Sons studio scheme they use Reikland Fleshshade here, though I tend to use Agrax Earthshade, as you’ll see in the example below. Reikland gives the gold a redder, warmer appearance.

Step 3: Block in the Panel Color

Next comes blocking in the panel color. You don’t have to be super-precise here but make sure you don’t hit your trim – you can leave some small gaps between the panel and trim if you want, as we’re going to color those in during the next step. For the GW scheme, the color to use here is Thousand Sons Blue. 

Step 4: Wash the Panels

Now it’s time to wash the panels. We want to use a black shade for this – the GW method uses Nuln Oil – to create dark, black recesses between the armor panels and the gold trim. You can go over a bit here, but the important thing is that your wash pools in the edge between trim and armor panel.

Step 5: Drybrush the Trim

In this next step we’re going to drybrush the trim with a lighter gold. The GW method uses Sigmarite but I used Liberator Gold here, and those are basically the same color, just with different consistencies. The goal here is to catch the raised edges – you can go over the panel color as you do this, just make sure you’re avoiding the dark recesses we just painted.

Step 6: Finish the panels

After that’s done, go back and recolor the armor panels, making sure to leave your dark lines between the panels and the trim. After this you’ll want to add details like transfers or painting the gemstone, and if you’re careful, you can add some highlights to the armor panels. Though if you’re planning to do more gradient work with the armor panels, I’d suggest painting the trim second.

Method 2: Priming the Model Any Other Color

If you’re looking to do more involved work with the armor panels, like giving them a gradient, then you’ll want to paint the armor first and do the trim later. In that case, prime the model whatever color works best for your basecoat.

Step 1: Gradients

In this example I’m painting a Rubric Marine shoulder pad for the Black Legion. I tend to do some subtle gradients here, mixing up from Abaddon Black to Corvus Black, which is a more like a cool dark gray. If I do this for the whole model, it’ll be done quickly with a larger brush, and I won’t worry about the trim at that stage, making it ideal to come back and paint the trim later. In this case I usually do four mixes/shades: Pure Abaddon Black, 2:1 Abaddon:Corvus, 1:2 Abaddon:Corvus, and pure Corvus.

Step 2: Panel Lining

I tend to do panel lining highlights before I do my gold trim. This gives me room to clean things up before the trim goes down. For black armor I do a thin line of Mechanicus Standard Grey. If you’re going to wash your trim around the edges or paint the recesses, you’d do it here as well.

Step 3: Trim Basecoat

Time to paint the trim. For this trim I’m using GW’s Retributor Armour. If you want a darker gold there are ways to get there with shades and washes, or you can start with something more brassy, like Screaming Bell. This is also where you want a steady hand – you want to paint the trim without touching your armor panels. Take your time here and use multiple thin coats.

Step 4: Wash the Trim

Next we need to wash the trim. This will give it a deeper, burnished look and darken the recesses. This both gives the trim definition and also will make the highlights pop that much more. For this example I’ve used Agrax Earthshade.

Step 5: Highlights

The final step is three stages of highlights: First I hit raised areas that are larger spots with the base trim color, in this case Retributor Gold. You can most easily tell where I did this on the upper eyelid on the lefthand side shoulder pad – I don’t want a blotch of Agrax wash sitting there so I came back and painted the whole lid.

Stage 2 is edge highlighting> First I hit the edges with Liberator Gold and then I hit the very tops and corners with a silver, in this case Runefang Steel. This gives the gold a very shiny look and really makes the edges pop.

Gemstones Header

Gemstones - Click to Expand

The Thousand Sons’ armor features a variety of gemstones and crystals, some of which are powerful loci of magical energy and others which are just there to look cool. There are a few tricks to painting gemstones, but they tend to follow a simple template, which you can find in our guide to painting gemstones, lenses and vials right here.

Lighting Effects Header

Lighting Effects - Click to Expand

As sorcerers, the Thousand Sons offer lots of opportunities to paint lighting effects and OSL – typically focusing on ethereal flames. There’s a little too much to cover quickly here so if you’re looking for tips and tricks on painting flame and OSL (Object Source Lighting), you can find our handy guide on the subject here.

Cloaks and Tabards Header

Cloaks and Tabards - Click to Expand

The traditional scheme for the Thousand Sons features white tabards and purple cloaks. For the official studio scheme, these cloaks typically have white or bone interiors and purple exteriors.

A Quick Method for Painting Cloaks

Painting cloaks to a high standard typically requires either an airbrush or a lot of wet blending, but there are some ways to achieve solid effects without either. For this example we’ve primed the cloak with Abaddon Black.

Step 1: The Interior base coat

The interior of the cloak is painted with a couple of thin coats of GW Rakarth Flesh.

Steps 2 and 3: Shading and blending

This is a two-stage shading process. In each stage we’ll mix Rakarth Flesh with Agrax Earthshade to produce a darker, warmer tone that can be painted into the recesses of the cloak interior. This will be dark, but because we’re using a wash in our mix, we can easily use the paint we put down for wet blending. Once you’ve painted the recesses, you can paint small amounts of Rakarth Flesh where the recesses open up to the main cloak to blend the colors and create transitions that are less severe.

Step 4: The Exterior base coat

The exterior of the cloak is a purple hue. The Thousand Sons use two different purples in the GW studio scheme – one for robes and one for cloaks. For this cloak I’m using Screamer Pink as the base, applying it in two thin coats.

Steps 5-7: Shading

In a similar fashion to the interior, we need to shade the recesses of the exterior. This starts with a coat of Nuln Oil, and we follow that up by painting the raised areas again with Screamer Pink. Then the transitions are covered with Carroburg Crimson and blended with mixes of Nuln Oil and Screamer Pink, while the highlighted ridges are painted with progressively smaller lines of Screamer Pink mixed with Reaper Pure White (any white will do).

Final Touches

For the final touch the edges of the interior are painted with Reaper Polished Bone (a very light bone color), and the cloak details are picked out with a light mix of Screamer pink and white.

Desert Bases Header

Desert Bases - Click to Expand

The Thousand Sons’ home world of Prospero is desert-like, and the faction is heavily visually inspired by ancient Egypt, with similar visual themes and colors. As a nod to both of these factors, Thousand Sons models tend to show up more often on Desert bases. You can find our full article on how to paint Desert and Wasteland bases here but if you’re in a hurry, here’s a quick and easy way to get started.

The Quick Texture Paint Method

I tend to go for quick-and-easy methods when it comes to basing, and desert bases require a lot less effort than many of the other biomes you could choose. This is a simple five-step method for creating Desert Bases.

Step 1: Undercoat

Start by painting the base with a dark brown color. I use Games Workshop Rhinox Hide for this. If you’re going to use a texture paint that cracks, you want the color underneath to be something that makes sense for the base, so you want to cover any gold or blue you might have gotten on the base.

Step 2: Texture Paint

Next comes the Texture Paint itself. Games Workshop offers two options here: Agrellan Badland and Agrellan Earth. Agrellan Badland is a more standard texture paint, with grit that makes it look like rocky, sandy terrain. Agrellan Earth is the crackle paint version – it splits apart and makes nice little cracks as it dries, giving you that broken, dry earth look. I find that Agrellan Earth tends to flake off a lot even after efforts to fix it and while it looks great these days I mix the two on my bases to reduce the amount that happens.

In the above example, I’ve painted the base with Agrellan Badland.

Step 3: Drybrush

Once that dries, you can drybrush it with a light bone color. I used Reaper Polished Bone but any bone color will do. If you’re working with Agrellan Earth you might want to shade the whole thing with Agrax Eartshade or a matte varnish like Technical Stormshield to help keep it in place.

Step 4: Base Rim Cleanup

Next it’s time to clean up the base rim. I paint my base rims black with Abaddon Black but you can use whatever color you want here. Gorthor Brown would also work well if you wanted to do something that matched closer to the sand color.

Step 5: Final Touches

After that it’s time for whatever final touches – rocks, tufts of grass, etc. I’ve added a medium tuft of grass from The Army Painter’s Wasteland Tufts set to help give this a little more going on.

Doing Repair Work

If you’re using Agrellan Earth, you’re going to lose material over time. When that happens, you can just cover up the holes or gaps with Agrellan Badland and then drybrush those with your bone color. In a pinch you can paint the gap with Gorthor brown and then drybrush that bone, but you’ll want to come back to it later.

Where to Find More Examples

There are a lot more ways to do this, especially if you want something more dramatic or you want to replicate something like sandy dunes or rocky outcrops. We’ve written an entire article on how to do Desert and Wasteland-style bases, which you can find here.

The Schemes Header

The Schemes - Click to Expand

Although the Thousand Sons are canonically blue with gold trim, there are many ways to achieve that effect. Additionally different cabals have different color schemes to work with while prior to the Horus Heresy the Thousand Sons had armor that was red and gold. In this section we explore different ways to paint the faction, written by various artists. Click on the image to head over to the relevant page.

Special Units Header

Special Units - Click to Expand

It’s not all power armor for the Thousand Sons – the army includes a number of other unit types, including Cultists, Daemons, Monsters, and even Magnus himself. In this section we’ll take a look at how to paint some of those special units.

Where to Find More

The Thousand Sons are a complicated faction with an interesting history. They have a lot going on visually, and they’ve changed quite a bit from their original concepts in the Rogue Trader days. If you’re looking for more schemes and inspiration, consider digging into resources on ancient Egyptian clothing, which was both more colorful and varied than you’d expect – there’s more to it than striped headwear styled off Tutankhamun’s golden funerary mask. Codex: Thousand Sons is also full of inspirational ideas, with a look at the different cabals that make up the splintered warbands of the Thousand Sons.

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