Calculated Evil: Dark Eldar Project Planning


So let’s talk Dark Eldar.

How’d We Get Here?

When I first started casting about for another 40k army with which to occupy my non-Blood Angels time, I set out a few broad criteria to guide me. First, I wanted a real departure from what I’d been doing. Second, I wanted a faction with appealing, visually-striking models. Third, I wanted to steer clear of the campier aspects of the 40k setting. Fourth, I wanted a challenge, something that would force me to up my game as a painter.

My first criterion pretty much ruled out another Imperium of Man army. While I toyed with the idea of doing Space Wolves and may yet work my way back to those guys (because freaking space vikings, yo), they and other Space Marine chapters, and to a lesser extent the Imperial Guard and the various Inquisition armies, all share the same basic iconography and outlook, and didn’t satisfy my desire for something different.

Taste, of course, is a subjective thing, but my second criterion ruled out the Chaos armies. There are definitely some Chaos models with serious wow-factor (Heldrakes and Maulerfiends and Daemon Princes, oh my), but on balance I find the Chaos armies something of a grotesquerie, unpleasant to look at even when painted well. Additionally, evil mutants though they may be, Chaos Space Marines still have a discernible Space Marines aesthetic which (see above) I wanted to move away from.

That left the various xenos races. Consistent with my first criterion I decided I wanted to do a more villainous faction, which ruled out the Eldar and the Tau. Orks failed to satisfy my third criterion (too campy), and Necrons my fourth (there are few things less challenging to paint than hordes of metallic skeletons). That left the Dark Eldar and the Tyranids, and while both met all of my requirements, the calculated evil of the former appealed to me more than the zerglike OMNOMNOM of the latter.

Kabals, Cults, and Covens

Not long after I started digging into the Dark Eldar source material I realized I was never going to be satisfied focusing primarily on one of the three sub-factions. The Kabals are cool… but so are the Wych Cults, and so are the Haemonculus Covens. Fortunately the source material presents examples of integrated Dark Eldar forces: Kabals frequently act as patrons to Wych Cults, and also cultivate mutually-beneficial alliances with Haemonculus Covens, such that a typical realspace raid may involve units from any or all of those groups. The Kabal of the Black Heart (which happens to be GW’s main Dark Eldar studio army) is perhaps the archetypical example of this, maintaining close ties with both the Cult of Strife and the Prophets of Flesh.

What to actually paint, then? The source material names a bunch of Kabals (and Cults, and Covens), but makes clear that there are rather a lot of them all vying with one another for power and influence in Commorragh. In other words, “Here are some examples of what’s out there, but there’s plenty of room to roll your own.” Having done the published army thing already, I decided to roll my own. The upside of this is that it gives me a pretty free hand to come up with my own fluff and color scheme. The downside is that, since I’m not quite doing anything like anybody else out there, few of the available resources and guides (be they fan or official) for modeling and painting Dark Eldar figures are directly on-point: they’re useful as inspiration, but they’re unlikely to be a direct help.

As I mentioned in my annual summary post, I want to focus, at least to start, on the Kabalite forces: Kabalite Warriors riding in Raiders. I’m also interested in adding some Scourges, some Mandrakes, and a Razorwing Jetfighter. Eventually I’ll need to add an Archon, a Succubus, and a Haemonculus, but I’d like to work up to that, and longer term I want to supplement this stuff with other models in the Dark Eldar range: Wyches and Reavers, some Hellions, Wracks, maybe a Pain Engine or three, and more vehicles (more Razorwings, plus Ravagers and Voidraven Bombers, as well as Raiders and Venoms for the foot-sloggers to ride in). Way down the priority list are Incubi, Beastmasters and their menageries, and Grotesques.


I’m convinced that one of the most important resources for any painter is a good color wheel, and in the modern age it’s no longer necessary to spring for one at the local art store: you can go to a site like Paletton and play around to your heart’s content. Start with a base color and you can auto-generate lists of adjacent and complementary colors to help guide you to a sensible coloring scheme for your models.

I also find it helpful to start with a reference picture. I was inspired by a really striking painting of a Succubus that I found on DeviantArt via Pinterest:


I am really partial to the blue of her arm- and leg-plates. It’s close to being a true, if muted, blue, and I think I see it at about 235º on the color wheel in Paletton, using the “dark neon” presets. If I look for nearby (35º) adjacent colors, and throw in the complementary color, I end up with something like this:


The complementary color – the opposite of my blue – is close to a true orange but has a hint more red than yellow; it’s almost a coppery hue. The adjacent colors, on the other hand, are a violet and a bluish, almost jade green.

If I instead generate a wide (70º) color triad, I end up with this:


Looking back at my reference picture, I see both of those colors. That deep, purplish red is in the gemstone hanging from her belt, and the gold is in the trim of her shoulder-plate.

Translating my swatches to Citadel base colors, my “main” base will be Kantor Blue. Adjacent base colors will be Incubi Darkness (for the jade greens) and Naggaroth Night (for the violet). My triad base colors will be Balthasar Gold (for the gold, duh) and either Khorne Red or Screamer Pink (for the purplish red; I’m still on the fence about this, and may end up using a mix). My complementary base color will be Screaming Bell.


Other base colors (I’m looking at you, Leadbelcher) will undoubtedly see spot duty.

Wait, Blue? Green?

The astute reader who is familiar with Dark Eldar fluff may recall that blue has, historically, been the base color of the Kabal of the Poisoned Tongue:


Interestingly, the new Dark Eldar codex presents the Kabal of the Poisoned Tongue as having changed its proverbial spots: in the plates on pages 62 and 63, they’re painted with black armor and turquoise hard edge highlights. Additionally, with countless Kabals running around Commorragh, there’s bound to be some, shall we say, heraldic overlap. So with all due respect to Lady Malys I don’t feel overly constrained by that picture, especially since I’m planning on using different spot colors.

One thing I want to avoid is having my models end up looking like an homage to the Vancouver Canucks, which is a risk when you’re contemplating a color scheme involving both blues and greens. I think I’ll be okay with this (the Canucks’ green is pretty bright and has a lot of yellow in it, whereas mine isn’t and doesn’t) but I’m going to try to be sparing with the green anyway. I can think of few things worse than trying to paint a band of vicious amoral killer space elves only to have people asking me which of the Sedin twins is my Archon and which is my Succubus.

Odds and Ends

I have four open questions that continue to nettle me.

One: how best to paint Dark Eldar flesh? If I may quote, briefly, from the codex (page 8):

The warriors of the Dark Eldar are tall and lithe without exception. Their alabaster skin is corpse-like in its pallor, for there is no true sunlight within their shadowy realm.

In other words, as Ron at From The Warp aptly put it, Dark Eldar skin is pale, lacks normal coloring, and comes in inhuman shades. Painting pale flesh usually involves using cool colors and avoiding warm ones. And yet nearly every single painting guide I’ve found for Dark Eldar skin – including GW’s own “official” guides — insists on either building up color from a warm base (say, Cadian Fleshtone), or shading with a warm wash (say, Reikland Fleshshade), or both. I have been experimenting on some test models with various alternatives, but haven’t really found any of them satisfactory: I had high hopes for a base of Celestra Grey with a wash of Drakenhof Nightshade, but the latter is so heavily pigmented that using it at full strength left the model looking like it was suffering from severe argyria:


I’m going to try diluting the wash and seeing if that helps. Failing that I may have to paint in the shadows rather than relying on a wash.

Two: how to paint the various hanging-from-the-waist decorations on Dark Eldar troop figures? Most Kabalite Warriors wear loincloths, many Wyches wear what look to be cloth belts, and some Wracks seem to wear aprons over their robes. All of these garments are most often painted (both in GW’s studio armies and by the rest of us mere mortals) as flayed skin, presumably taken from the wearer’s victims. I am probably 90% settled on painting my figures the same way, but then I look back at my reference picture in which the cloth belt appears to be actual cloth, and I start to have second thoughts.

(Of course, I might be guilty of overthinking this. Maybe that’s not cloth, but the mortal remains of some poor Tau that ended up on the wrong end of her knives. The color seems about right.)

Three: what to do about iconography? Since I’m rolling my own Kabal, Wych Cult, and Haemonculus Coven, I need to come up with insignia to adorn their vehicles and suchlike; the transfer sheet included in Dark Eldar kits has insignia for published groups, and while it may be useful inspiration it’s not much help otherwise. Additionally, vehicles in GW’s studio armies are frequently painted with a variety of decorative Dark Eldar glyphs in addition to their group insignia. Finally, I need to figure out how to move the elements that I come up with from paper onto models in a way that doesn’t look like garbage. I don’t have a lot of experience freehanding such things, so this is likely a challenge, albeit one that I can kind of punt on until I get cracking on vehicles in a serious way.

Four: what about the Haemonculus Coven units? Closely-aligned Kabals and Wych Cults seem to share similar color schemes: the Kabal of the Black Heart and the Cult of Strife both have the same dark green with lighter green hard edge highlights scheme; the Kabal of the Poisoned Tongue and the Cult of the Seventh Woe are painted with the same black with turquoise hard edge highlights scheme. But the Haemonculus Covens seem to be another matter. While the Prophets of Flesh is the only Coven that we’ve seen painted models of, they’re shown with a black-and-grey scheme that doesn’t vary even when they’re shown alongside a Kabal or a Wych Cult. The Haemonculus Covens supplement does contain some artwork depicting units from other Covens, from which it’s possible to extrapolate Coven-wide color schemes. But the upshot is that the Covens seem to do their own thing even, heraldry-wise, when they’re allied with a Kabal – and that means that no matter what scheme I come up with for my Kabal and my Wych Cult, I’m going to need to switch things up when I get around to painting Coven units.

The Path Forward

The obvious next step is to paint a complete test model (my experiments to date have been on partially-assembled models; typically bodies without the arms, and disembodied heads). I’ll try to get some photos up this weekend.

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