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. This week, we’re looking at the most wonderfully putrid Space Marines of all, the Death Guard.
The Death Guard
The Death Guard are a traitor legion who worship and act in service to the Chaos God Nurgle, the god of plagues and pestilence. Originally the XIVth legion of the First Founding, the Death Guard fought in the Great Crusade under their Primarch, Mortarion. They can trace their origins in the game and their rules all the way back to the first edition of Warhammer 40,000. They first received rules, and their primarch was named, in the Realm of Chaos: The Lost and the Damned supplement, which covered armies dedicated to Nurgle and Tzeentch. Since that time, the Death Guard have had faction rules that were broadly defined through the use of Plague Marines, the Mark of Nurgle, and Chaos Daemons, though like the other Chaos Legions they received formal faction rules during 3rd and 4th edition after the release of their Index Astartes article. The faction lost specialized rules in 5th edition but received new ones in the Traitor Legions supplement at the tail end of 7th edition.
As an Imperial legion, the Death Guard were known for their tenacity and toughness. They took after their Primarch, Mortarion, who grew up and was discovered on the harsh world of Barbaros, an industrial planet covered in toxic smog and ruled by brutal warlords. Mortarion was raised by one of these warlords, but would eventually betray his adoptive father by becoming a warrior for the planet’s oppressed peoples. When the Emperor arrived on Barbaros, Mortarion was locked in a battle with the planet’s last surviving warlord – the same warlord who had raised him and taught him the arts of war. When Mortarion succumbed to the planet’s toxic atmosphere trying to scale the warlord’s tower, the Emperor stepped in and finished the job, and Mortarion pledged his services to the Great Crusade, though he never forgave the Emperor for denying him the opportunity to slay the Tyrant of Barbaros.
Mortarion had always felt more comfortable around Horus than most of his other brothers or the Emperor, and when the Warmaster announced his rebellion, it didn’t take much to convince Mortarion to join his cause. The conversion of the Death Guard was further aided by Calas Typhon (who would later become Typhus), the Captain of the Death Guard’s First Company. He had long been a follower of Chaos and led the Death Guard’s fleet into the warp, where it became stranded and beset by plagues sent by Nurgle. These strange diseases ravaged their numbers until finally Mortarion cried out for aid, and was met by Nurgle. The legion was transformed, becoming bloated and vile. Typhus was transformed, becoming a living host for the Destroyer Plague that had ravaged the Death Guard. And Mortarion emerged as a champion of Nurgle.
With the release of 8th edition, Death Guard moved into the spotlight, taking a central role in the return of Roboute Guilliman as Mortarion’s forces attacked the Konor system, destroying valuable worlds and corrupting whole populations and destroying food sources. The Death Guard received their own Codex for the first time, featuring unique units and rules and rules for Mortarion, the second Daemon Primarch to receive a model. In the fiction, Mortarion clashed with the reawakened Roboute Guilliman, fighting him to a standstill on Iax before withdrawing with his fellow Death Guard and virus bombing the planet. When 8th edition released, Death Guard received a feature role as the main villains of the edition, showing up as the enemy force in the Dark Imperium box set, and getting their own standalone codex as the second release of the edition’s Codexes. They also got an entirely new plastic range that saw the release of the third plastic primarch model, Mortarion.
Where to Read More
You should start with the content in Codex: Death Guard, but after that there are a few different places to read about the Death Guard:
- Dark Imperium and its follow-up novel, Plague War, both cover Roboute Guilliman’s return to the Imperium in the 41st millennium and the resulting campaign that rages across the Konor system. The second book focuses more heavily on the battle against the Death Guard, but Mortarion and Typhus both figure into Dark Imperium.
- Mortarion doesn’t have his own novel yet in the Horus Heresy series, but there are a few books that prominently feature the Death Guard. Lantern’s Light is the closest thing you can get to an origin story, detailing Mortarion’s relationship with the Emperor one year into his joining the Imperium and taking the helm of the Death Guard.
- Horus Heresy Book 54: The Buried Dagger details the transformation of the Death Guard from a legion of superhuman warriors into a pox-riddled horde of Nurgle-worshipping monsters.
- The Lords of Silence is the first book focusing primarily on Death Guard as protagonists that takes place in the “modern day” Imperium. It follows The Lords of Silence, a Death Guard warband of about 600 traitor legionnaires devoted to Nurgle.
- Daemonology covers some of Mortarion’s first steps down the path of Chaos, following his defeat at the hands of Jaghatai Khan in the White Scars novel.
Playing Death Guard
The Death Guard are marked by two major factors in Warhammer 40,000: The first is being incredibly difficult to kill. Many Death Guard units have a higher Toughness characteristic than similar Chaos Space Marine units and most of the units in a Death Guard army have the Disgustingly Resilient special rule, which allows units to ignore damage on a D6 roll of 5+, functionally meaning that they’ll shrug off one third of the wounds that make it through their armor. Their other hallmark is being incredibly slow — most of the army sacrifices Movement for that Toughness, which can make getting around the table and closing distances a real pain. This is further compounded by the fact that most Death Guard units lack strong, long-range firepower to take out heavily armored targets. The upside is that the Death Guard can be brutally adept at taking out targets, particularly hordes, when they start to close those distances, and the Death Guard’s Inexorable Advance trait gives INFANTRY and HELBRUTES the ability to move and fire heavy weapons without suffering a penalty to their To Hit rolls.
Death Guard also have the NURGLE keyword, and combo very effectively with Nurgle Daemons where many psychic powers and auras can benefit units from both armies.
For a full rundown on playing Death Guard competitively, check out our Start Competing: Death Guard article.
In Kill Team, Death Guard teams can be really tough to take out, using their extra toughness and Disgustingly Resilient ability to stick around longer than most units. Unlike other high-cost, elite teams, Death Guard can bolster their ranks with Poxwalkers, using their shambling cohorts to open doors and control parts of the board while using plague marines as heavy hitters to act as Plasma Gun snipers and Demo/Heavy Blight Launchers take out high-value targets while moving across the table. The Elites expansion made Death Guard even tougher in this regard, bringing Inexorable Advance into Kill Team and allowing your Plague Marines to march or advance across the table and close distances without having to worry as much about the drop in accuracy.
For a full rundown on playing Death Guard in Kill Team, check out our guide to Death Guard Kill Teams.
Generally, you’re probably going to run Death Guard in Apocalypse as Nurgle-heavy Chaos, taking advantage of the ability to seamlessly mix detachments of Daemons and Death Guard into one large, putrescent force. The Death Guard have a few special tricks open to them in the form of 5 bespoke Command Assets. Most of them specialize in putting blast markers on nearby units, ensuring you’ll want to march your Death Guard across the table and get right up in your opponent’s face in order to use them. This fits the Death Guard’s historic style of grinding forward relentlessly.
Painting Death Guard
Death Guard are fun as hell to paint, primarily because they are just an incredibly sloppy, gross army. In many ways, they’re one of the most forgiving armies a newbie can paint, because the models welcome a lot of splatter and messiness. On the other hand, it can be really easy to overdo it with effects and grime and come out with something that looks muddled and overdone. The best Death Guard armies know when and where to apply color and grime, and strike a good balance with other colors. Death Guard also create a lot of opportunities to really use the Games Workshop technical paints, and several of the techniques we’ll dive into below make good use of these.
Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones
I loved the new Death Guard minis the moment I first saw them in blurry, leaked preview images six months before 8th edition launched. They’re a wonderful blend of gross, grimy, grim, and goofy that appeals to me. While I like the crisp white look inspired by the Heresy-era Guard, I’ve always been a fan of the 2nd edition color schemes for Chaos armies, and so I knew I wanted to do mine more of the traditional green. I also really liked the studio’s scheme for incorporating purples into the cloth effects, so I went with that too. Finally I use a lot of technical paints on these guys — Nihilakh Oxide, Typhus Corrosion, Blood for the Blood God, and Nurgle’s Rot all see regular use when I’m painting Death Guard.
My basic method is pretty similar to the method showcased in White Dwarf.
- Basecoat with Castellan Green, Wash with Nuln Oil. Then I do a layer of Castellan Green on the raised parts over that, and then I go over that with Death World Forest and hit the topmost areas/edges with Death Guard Green.
- After I do the basecoat, I’ll go back over some of the recesses and lower parts of the model and hit those with Agrax Earthsahde. I’m pretty liberal with this, and trying to paint oil spots/drips/leaks.Then I hit patches of it with Typhus Corrosion.
- The Gold Trim and Bronze Parts are Balthasar Gold washed heavily with Agrax Earthshade.Then I hit it with Nhilakh Oxide to give it that oxidated look. For the armor trim, I’ll edge highlight or hit parts of it with Retributor Armor.
- Chainmail and other Steel parts are done by basecoating with Leadbelcher, then I wash with Nuln Oil and Agrax Earthshade, then edge highlight with Ironbreaker. If I want them to look real rusted, I hit them with Typhus Corrosion and then drybrush that with Ryza Rust to make it look old and rusted over.
- Snot is painted Death Guard green, then covered in Nurgle’s Rot
Bone: Basecoat Rakarth Flesh, then wash with Agrax Earthshade. Re-paint with Rakarth Flesh, then edge highlight with Reaper Polished Bone.
- Basecoat with Bugman’s Glow
- Wash with Agrax Earthshade
- Re-coat with Bugman’s Glow. Edge highlight with a 50/50 mix of Bugman’s Glow and Reaper Polished Bone
- Boils are done with Averland Sunset
- Coat with Nurgle’s Rot
Plague Weapons: Basecoat with Leadbelcher, wash with Nuln Oil and Agrax Earthshade. Hit with splotches of Typhus Corrosion. Edge with Ironbreaker. Coat in Nurgle’s Rot.
Cloth: Basecoat with Naggaroth Nightshade. Wash with Nuln Oil. Re-coat with Naggaroth Nightshade. Shade up with a Mix of Naggaroth Nightshade and white. Edge highlight with Genestealer Purple.
Smoke: Basecoat with Reaper Ghost White, then wash with a mix of Coelia Greenshade and Drakenhof Nightshade
Viscera: Basecoat with Bugman’s Glow, then coat with Blood for the Blood God. Re-coat with Nurgle’s Rot.
Bonus: Painting Poxwalkers
For Poxwalkers, I tend to start with a flesh tone base (Rakarth Flesh, Bugman’s Glow, Cadian Fleshtone, Kislev Flesh), then I wash them with various colors, based on what I want to do with them color-wise. Washing flesh tones with Carroburg Crimson, Duruchii Violet, Coelia Greenshade, Cassandora Yellow, and Biel-Tan Green all produce interesting results, and I’ll usually combine them on a single model to get interesting effects. I then do the largest boils with Averland Sunset, and I hit most of the green parts of the model (and then some) with Nurgle’s Rot, to give it a shiny, snot-covered look.
Daniel “Zuul the Cat”
I had been reading a bunch on the background of Warhammer 30,000 and came to the realization that Chaos was, in fact, right. I was originally drawn to Death Guard because I felt the models really captured what Chaos Space Marines were supposed to look like – warriors that had existed for 10,000 years in the warp. I never gave them much thought prior to the new models because they just looked like regular Space Marines but with spikes on them.
The Armor: You want to start by spraying the entire model Death Guard Green, then picking out any of the pockmarks on the armor or deep gouges with Screamer Pink. Following this, wash the entire model with Agrax Earthshade, taking care to not let it pool too much (although a little bit is fine). Once that dries, a 2-step downward stroke drybrush is done with Elysian Green followed by Ogryn Camo for the armor. You can also highlight the pockmarks with Pink Horror and Emperor’s Children.
The Metallics: The trim of the armor is picked out with Balthasar Gold, while any metal bits (plague knives, boltguns, armor decoration) is Lead Belcher. For any ornaments on the armor, such as the bells or censers, I used Screaming Bell to give it a different tone than the armor trim. These are all then washed with a 1:1 mix of Nuln Oil and Agrax Earthshade. Using a thinned down mix of Nihilakh Oxide with water, you can then apply it as a wash to the gold trim and ornaments. It’s okay if it looks heavy when it goes on, it’ll flatten out in the recesses. Beyond this, your metallics are done. I don’t think Death Guard look right if they’re highlighted. They should look grimy and dirty, as Grandfather Nurgle likes.
- For the smoke from the censer on top, base coat with Celestra Grey followed by a highlight of Ulthuan Grey. Wash with Coelia Greenshade and pick out the highest points with Ulthuan Grey once again.
- For the shoulder pads, basecoat them with Ushabti Bone and wash with Seraphim Sepia. For the red markings, basecoat with Mephiston Red and highlight with Evil Sunz Scarlet.
- For any ooze or the veins in plague knives, basecoat with Caliban Green followed by a highlight of Warp Lightning. Wash with Biel-Tan Green and finish with a final highlight of Moot Green.
- For tentacles, I simply paint these Screamer Pink on the tops and Thousand Sons Blue on the bottom, also adding a few Temple Guard Blue dots for depth.
- For flesh tubes (lol), base them in Screamer Pink followed with a layer of Pink Horror. Wash the area with Carroburg Crimson. Once dry, layer once again with Pink Horror but leave the recesses dark. Layer up from there with Emperor’s Children, Ushabti Bone and Kislev Flesh. Add a little thinned down Druchii Violet around openings to make the flesh look bruised. I got this recipe from someone online and I can’t remember their name.
- To make the model look dirty, I use AK Interactive Streaking Grime for, well, the streaks of grime. It’s an oil paint, so you can thin it down later if you want with mineral spirits/white spirits. I left mine a little stark here so it’s easy to see from the table top.
- Lastly, for the eyes, it’s a simple Averland Sunset base with an Yriel Yellow highlight. This is then glazed over with Lamenter’s Yellow.
Adamantium|Wang (Horus Heresy Armor / White Variant)
I picked Death Guard for 30K because I really liked the themes of the Legion and how they were twisted during the Heresy; Mortarion’s struggle for his people against oppression ended up with him serving one tyrant after another, the virtues of endurance, self reliance and simple efficiency turned them into an absolute nightmare for the Imperium to fight. I also hated painting tanks and having a Legion that relied on infantry after having murdered most of their armour crews at Istvaan suited me just fine. Back in 7th there were rules to allow you to play games of 40K with your 30K legions but I sadly only got a few games in before the split between the rulesets happened and I shelved my Marines to instead focus on my long suffering Guardsmen. I tried making the army work with both CSM and Death Guard rules but they just didn’t feel right with the units I had and plugging holes in the list would have been more time and effort than I was willing to invest. Now the custom chapter rules have hit for Marines I’m dusting these guys off and starting to put paint to model again.
The models have a bunch of work done with an airbrush but thats only to save time. With the amount of weathering and drybrushing this recipie should work with just regular methods.
First they get a coat of Vallejo Leather Brown primer via airbrush before a full coat of VMA Bonewhite and a zenithal highlight of VMC Offwhite. Next the whole model is washed with AP Soft Tone with consideration to get into all the recesses and try to avoid pooling and tide marks. After that’s dried I drybrush the model with Bonewhite and then lightly with Offwhite. It may look a bit rough at this stage but this is fine, a bit of texture helps with the overall effect.
Rubber areas are simply washed twice with AP Dark Tone. Gun casings are VMC Black Grey highlighted with VMA Cold Grey and washed with Dark Tone. VMA Silver is used for steel and then washed with Dark Tone. Trim is VMA Brassy Brass with a VMA Bright Bronze highlight and washed with AP Flesh Wash. Lenses are VMA Red Gore with a VMA Bloody Red highlight and a AP Purple Tone wash. A dot of Offwhite is added where I can fit the brush in. Green parts are Deathworld Forest with a bit of Loren Forest to highlight, washed with AP Strong Tone.
It’s usually at this point where I start to weather. I sponge on some Black Grey onto areas that would see the most wear and tear like gauntlets, greaves and plastrons, and lightly sponge more over much else of the model. The trick here is to not go overboard – there is a temptation to go very heavy with weathering (especially with Death Guard) but you need to leave a good amount of the white showing to act as a contrast. Like Bob Ross always says, you need dark to show light and vice versa. After this I sponge on some Offwhite even more lightly just to add a bit more texture and suggest some flecks of wear and tear that have gone the other way.
Now I begin to base. My army is a terror force that was sent out to sow confusion and chaos during the early years of the Heresy, so I’ve modelled them walking through the ashes of a world they’ve just burned. The model comes off the base and a layer of Black Lava goes on. This is a bunch of mica grains in a medium that you can shape in all sorts of ways and has a fine texture that’s just the right scale for our little dollies. It takes a while to dry out, and after an hour or two I press the model back into the base to make an impression for their feet. Heavier things like Terminators or Dreadnoughts benefit from sinking into the ground slightly. Here is where I will begin to add things like skulls and shell casings too. Once dry the base gets a full coat of Vallejo Heavy Sienna with a drybrush of Cold Grey and Stonewall Grey. Skulls are given a little highlight of Offwhite before a wash of Soft Tone.
The model is glued onto the base and then varnished to prepare for transfers. Once they’re on they are sealed with another layer of varnish and weathered as earlier. Now the fun begins.
For further weathering I use Vallejo Pigments. Exhausts and guns will get layers of Burnt Sienna to Dark Sienna and Black. Boots and greaves get a generous helping of Black which is also worked into the base around it. A short, flat headed old brush is good for this, as you can build up the intensity of the pigment with successive passes. Once that’s all done a final layer of Testor’s Dullcote goes on, the rims are painted black and the mini is off to join his brothers in the game case.
Step 0 Prime Death Guard Green
Step 1 Paint gold areas in Balthazar gold Paint Silver areas in VMA Steel Paint fur in Zandri Dust Paint pink/fleshy areas in Tuskagor fur
Step 2 Wash entire model in Agrax Earthshade
Step 3 Highlight green areas in Nurgling Green. Paint lots of little lines at the edges of the armour plates all going vertically along the armour in Nurgling green too. Drybrush the steel and the gold in Silver. Drybrush fur in Rakarth Flesh
Step 4 Smaller highlights of Krieg Khaki inside the Nurgling Green bits. Apply some Rhinox Hide to a dry brush and liberally stab the metals to get a rust effect.
Step 5 Repeat the rust areas with a small amount of Troll Slayer Orange to finish it off.
For the blue glowing effect I used on these guys check out HTPE: Quick and Easy OSL
I like Death Guard because of their resiliency and Nurgle was my first foray into Chaos. I wanted my Death Guard models to be striking, and for my opponent to walk up from the other side of the table and think they looked cool. To that point, I wanted the models to look good from 1-3 feet away, choosing to focus on a couple of visually interesting elements (the rust and weathering) instead of every detail and facet of the model. I like this approach in general. The weathering approach I used, combined with the classic 30k color scheme, resulted in a starkly contrasting model, which is interesting to look at.
For the body and dozer blade:
- Prime black.
- Base the whole model is a very dark brown (Model Air burnt lumber). This is the darkest part of the rust that will eventually shine through.
- Pick a lighter brown (I used Mournfang Brown) to serve as a highlight to the rust color and do a rough zenithal highlight. Quick and dirty, don’t spend too much time on this because we’re about to cover it all up.
- If you really want to, pick a bright orange and pick out the most raised areas. Real rust is surprisingly orange so don’t afraid to use a Trollslayer Orange or an equivalent. Look up reference pictures if you need to.
- Varnish with your varnish of choice. I like Testors because it’s in a can and easy.
- Spray with a cheap hairspray all over, the cheaper the better. The key is that it’s water-soluble, which cheap hairspray is.
- Paint a light beige/cream color (p3 menoth white) all over the parts that will be the “white” color.
- Zenithal highlight with a whiter-cream color (menoth white highlight), picking out the raised or interesting areas.
- For the green parts, base in a p3 traitor green, then highlight towards the top with an Elysian Green.
- Take a toothbrush, wire pipe cleaner, or another tool with bristles or points, dip it in water, and gently scrape off some paint where you think the paint would naturally wear off. Start off slow and build the effect as desired.
- To pump up the contrast (which almost always results in a more interesting-looking model) take a dark brown ink, I used Daler Rowney Burnt Umber, and spray towards the bottom of the dozer as well as in some of the recessed areas.
For the metals:
- Base the bronze areas in Castellax Bronze then highlight with Molten Bronze from P3.
- Base the steel areas in Metal Color Burnt Iron, then drybrush a midtone of leadbelcher, followed by a drybrush highlight of Metal Color duraluminum.
- I used an oil wash (purple, black, and sienna) over the metal parts. You don’t have to; a standard acrylic wash is almost as good, much faster, and able to be controlled if you’re careful. The topic of an oil wash is probably worth an entire post, so I won’t go into the details here.
- I diluted Dry Rust from The Army Painter and did a thin wash in the recesses and pox marks of all the steel. Likewise, I diluted nihilakh oxide and did a thin was for all of the copper.
There’s a lot more detail on this model than I painted, but that’s an awesome part about painting your models with a couple of striking and visually interesting components – you don’t have to paint every detail because 95% of people won’t notice or care. Spend time on the biggest points of interest and you can save time elsewhere.
I was drawn to Death Guard after reading Dark Imperium by Guy Hayley. The creeping body horror and slow inexorable decay of a couple characters was compelling enough to make me want to paint up some Plague Marines. When the Plagueburst Crawler was released, I knew I needed to tackle this monster. I wanted to make the armor look like it was actively bleeding; an unholy merging of mechanical plates and flesh.
For the Body and Dozer Blade
- Prime grey
- Base the whole model in Flayed One Flesh
- Liberally wash the whole model with Athonian Camoshade. Use an extra brush damped only with water to pool, smear, and clear away the shade in patchy patterns.This color is intended to create a sickly, patchy, look and not necessarily wash into the recesses .
- Wash recesses and ridges with Agrax Earthshade. Use that extra water brush to blend and clear the shade away as needed. Letting it pool under the ridges helps the highlight stand out.
- Edge highlight ridges and armor panels with Flayed One Flesh
For the Wounds
- Stipple purple, brown, and yellow around all open wounds
- Glaze flayed one flesh the stippling to blend it back into the flesh
- Paint Blood for the Blood God into the wounds, dripping down as desired.
- While Blood for the Blood God is still wet, dab Nurgle’s Rot into the wounds. The two technical paints will mix incompletely, creating a bloody pus effect
For the Metals
- Silver metals are Leadbelcher and Nuln Oil
- Copper metals are Reaper Tarnished Copper, Stone Wash, and edge highlighted with New Copper
Death Guard really provides the opportunity to mess with technical paints. I also added Nurgle’s Rot to the mortars, treads, and recesses. Blood for the Blood God can come out of any part of the model to help drive home the unholy marriage of flesh and machine.
Grandfather’s Lessons Learned
That should give you everything you need to start painting your own Death Guard army. The key is to just have fun with it, and experiment with techniques to make your models look gross as hell. If you have any questions about the methods here, or you’d like to share some models and methods of your own, shoot us a comment in the comments section below or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love to get feedback from readers, and if you’ve got a Death Guard army of your own you’d like to showcase in one of our Army Showcase articles, feel free to tell us that too — we’re always looking for new armies to showcase. We’re currently missing a recipe/method for more white-armored Death Guard, so if you’d like to share your army and recipe for the article, let us know, and we’d be happy to add it.