Painting Tau

Hey everybody,
A while ago, when talking about my Tau army plans, I mentioned researching the “proper” painting guides and whatnot for Tau miniatures, so today I thought I’d share the fruits of these labours! In some ways, this is a bit of a companion piece to a post I wrote last time I was collecting Tau, where I looked at all the different support systems that are represented by bits in the plastic kits. Of course, the correct way to paint your miniatures is “however you want them to look”, but being a huge lore nerd, I do often like to paint my stuff correctly in terms of the established lore. If you’re like me, then you might find this useful!

First of all, Tau are divided into Septs, in the same way Space Marines are divided into Chapters. Unlike Space Marines, however, Tau Sept colours are limited to the markings, not the overall armour colour. The armour, instead, is meant to be painted as camouflage, to help the warriors blend in to their battlefield surroundings. The classic Tau scheme of ochre is a generic desert camo, and the Tau Sept colour is white. Vior’la markings are red, but the armour is mostly shown as white in the promotional stuff from GW, I presume as a kind of snow camo. In theory, you could paint Vior’la in the ochre scheme, with red Sept markings, and that’s fine – the Vior’la are fighting in the desert! I’ve only really come across it with my Sa’cea Sept, but the lore suggests that different Septs are more proficient on certain battlefields – Sa’cea specialising in urban warfare, so their armour is largely shown as that blue-grey colour. Sa’cea Sept markings are orange, though, which always makes me smile because surely they’d be a dead giveaway in an actual war setting?

This brings me on to the next point, though. Whereas mostly we’re taught that basing should complement the miniature, and allow it to stand out to some degree, with Tau you almost want the miniatures to blend into the basing – something I’ve only seen rarely, but it does look fantastic when you see it done well. As if the miniature is somehow rising up from the base, or something.

Moving away from painting for a second, we need to talk about Castes. The Tau civilisation is a caste-based system, with the Tau people split into five. The Earth Caste is the engineers, the Air Caste is the air force, the Water Caste is the diplomats, and the Fire Caste is the infantry. The Ethereal Caste is a breed apart, and these mysterious beings form the ruling elite of Tau society.

For the tabletop game, Fire Caste is really the only one that matters, although Ethereal miniatures do exist (and of course, Air Caste is represented by fliers and in Aeronautica Imperialis). Let’s look at the ranking system:

Cadet: Shas’saal
Line trooper: Shas’la
Sergeant/veteran: Shas’ui
Elite bodyguard: Shas’vre
Field Commander: Shas’el
General: Shas’o

This structure is somewhat mirrored across the other castes, with different prefixes for each (Por’ for Water Caste, Kor’ for Air Caste, Fio’ for Earth Caste, and Aun’ for Ethereal Caste).


Why is all of this important? Well each rank has a slightly different paint scheme to consider! A single team of, say, Fire Warriors, will have Sept markings that denote they all belong to the same squad. The squad Shas’ui / Sergeant has the Sept colour on both shoulder pad and sensor vane, to mark him out among the rest. Speaking of shoulder pads, the symbol on the pads of Fire Warriors is that of their Caste, and not some kind of chapter badge-analogue.

Shas’ui are the lowest rank permitted to pilot a battlesuit. For a Shas’ui pilot, the Sept colour is used for the sensor vane only; for a Shas’vre pilot, the entire helmet is in the Sept colour. A Shas’el Commander has the helmet in the Sept colour with the sensor vane in the armour colour, and a Shas’O pilot has the Sept colour on the whole helmet, with Sept markings matching the armour colour. So for Vior’la, for example, a Shas’ui has a white helmet with a red vane; a Shas’vre has a red helmet; a Shas’el has a red helmet with white sensor vanes, and a Shas’o has a red helmet with white Sept markings.

For battlesuits, the breadth of markings seems to be quite random. There will be the usual markings that show the suit belongs to a specific Hunter Cadre (the term used for a Tau battle group), and then different suits can have honour markings, or heraldry, etc. It all seems to end up pretty haphazard as to which panels get the Sept colour, though, and some suits get additional colours to help break up the large panels – for instance, Vior’la have white and pale grey on the armour, presumably to help with the camouflage.

I’ve talked a lot about Sept markings so far, but what are these markings? Well, it’s basically a set of lines and pips, the arrangement of which is specific to the squad/cadre that a unit belongs to.  Hunter Cadres are the force organisation of Tau armies, organised into one grand Hunter Contingent under the Shas’o. The force will include Fire Teams, Broadside Support, Pathfinders and others. Stuff like this is always an interesting way to think about how to go about collecting a force, though obviously there’s more than one way to build your army! In the following illustration, you can see the Sept markings that are used for each of these squads, as well:


Ultimately, of course, you can build and paint your army however you like. Your choice of units and colour scheme is only really dictated by you. However, GW have gone to great pains to establish a lore behind these things, and this is something that does in particular interest me, so I do like to keep to that wherever possible. There’s definitely more to be said on this topic, but that’s something for another blog! Hopefully, if you too are a lore nerd, then this post will have been of some help in getting the Tau painted “properly”.

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