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 week’s article, we’re looking at the Deathwatch.
The Deathwatch are a relatively recent addition to Warhammer 40,000 lore, having originally shown up during late 3rd edition with a brief mention in Codex: Armaggeddon and then becoming more prominent in the Inquisitor standalone 54mm miniatures/roleplaying game. The Inquisitor rulebook included rules for Space Marines in the game (who were incredibly overpowered compared to everything else you could take) and introduced us to Brother Artemis of the Deathwatch. The popularity of this 54mm Space Marine model later led to the release of additional Deathwatch rules in White Dwarf alongside a metal upgrade kit. And then… nothing.
Many people expected had expected a Xeno Hunters codex in 3rd edition, presumably featuring the Deathwatch, to accompany the Daemon- and Witch Hunters books. Instead Deathwatch went largely forgotten by GW for the better part of 15 years, mostly appearing as converted Sternguard, until they were reintroduced at the end of 7th edition with the Deathwatch: Overkill box. Shortly afterwards they received an entire Codex, making them a full-fledged faction once more. That status has held into 8th edition, where Deathwatch received an updated codex and access to new Primaris Marine units. Deathwatch remain an elite Marines army, providing tons of versatility and power, but at a considerably higher cost. They shine brightest in Kill Team, where their wealth of equipment and modeling options makes them a perfect for for the game’s squad-based scale and gives players a ton of options to work with.
Who Are The Deathwatch?
Founded by decree of the High Lords of Terra in the wake of the Ork campaign led by the tyrant known as The Beast, the Deathwatch are an elite group of Space Marines trained specially to fight Xenos threats. They operate as a branch of the Ordo Xenos Inquisition in much the same way that Grey Knights operate as members of the Ordo Malleus. Unlike Grey Knights however, Deathwatch Marines are not exclusive to the Deathwatch; instead they are veterans recruited from chapters across the galaxy to serve in the Deathwatch for a limited time before returning (should they survive). To be chosen to serve in the Deathwatch is considered a great honor for a Space Marine, and the details of their missions and service are kept secret under oaths made to the Inquisition.
For the Imperium, the Deathwatch are the best of the best when it comes to hunting aliens, an elite force outfitted with custom technology, armor, and tactics designed specifically to take on Xenos threats. Unlike Space Marine chapters, the Deathwatch do not abide by the Codex Astartes, and operate not as regimented squads but instead as a series of Kill Teams, small units of special forces that combine multiple specialties and armaments to accomplish specific tasks. In larger battles a Deathwatch army may field multiple Kill Teams to accomplish a goal, though for large-scale threats the Deathwatch will usually call on the help of the Astra Militarum or a chapter of regular Space Marines. Although their squads are different, Deathwatch are still organized into companies and have multiple chapters spread across a series of fortress-monasteries.
The Deathwatch were prominently involved in the awakening of Ynnead, the Eldar god of the dead. A Deathwatch kill team led by Watch Captain Artemis was dispatched to take out Eldrad Ulthran and his Harlequin allies from awakening the sleeping god, though at the time the Deathwatch had no idea what the ritual was for. They succeeded in their task of stopping the ritual, though Eldrad was still able to cause the god to stir, ultimately awakening to a limited degree some time later. Most recently, the Deathwatch have been fighting off threats from within, rooting out and destroying Genestealer Cults on key planets throughout the Imperium.
Where to Read More
If you’re interested in reading more about the Deathwatch, you’re in luck! Their nature makes them an easy group to write about, and there are several novels about them taking on Mission Impossible-style antics in space:
- The Deathwatch Codex has a ton of information on the chapter, its origins, and how it operates. For pure “what is their deal,” this is the best place to start.
- Deathwatch: Omnibus is a large collection of short stories and novellas of varying quality (Parker’s books are probably the best of them, though he tends to be heavier on the battle scenes than the “life in the Imperium” parts) that cover different teams across a variety of missions and show how the Deathwatch’s goals can sometimes be at odds with other marine chapters.
- Deathwatch Ignition collects a series of short stories covering the members of Kill Team Cassius in their attempts to take out a Genestealer Cult. It was released at the same time as the Deathwatch: Overkill box and features the characters from that set.
- Shadowbreaker by Steve Parker covers the story of a squad of Deathwatch out to find a missing Inquisitor on a world conquered by hostile T’au forces.
Playing With the Deathwatch
On the battlefield, the Deathwatch act much as you’d expect, operating as expensive, elite infantry best-suited for taking out specific targets. Following the release of the new Space Marines Codex, Deathwatch are now in a bit of a strange place, lacking Combat Doctrines to get the same army-wide effectiveness of Codex Marines but also facing no penalties for “souping” with other Imperial factions in the same army. As a result, Deathwatch are at their best when combined with other Imperial factions such as Astra Militarum, Imperial Knights, and Assassins.
In combat, the Deathwatch benefit from two major rules:
- Special Issue Ammunition, which allows Deathwatch firing a bolter weapon to choose from 4 different ammo types, each with their own benefits that improve the chances of wounding, to hit, range, and AP. The ammo types are particularly powerful, and because they are best with high volumes of bolter fire, you’ll find that Deathwatch work best when equipped with Storm Bolters.
- Mission Tactics, which gives the Deathwatch army the ability to re-roll Wound rolls of 1 against units from a chosen battlefield role (i.e. Troops, HQ, Elites, and so on). They also have stratagems to both change tactics mid-battle and also further boost their ability to wound units in a chosen role.
For more on how to play Deathwatch, check out our Start Competing: Deathwatch article coming this Friday.
Additionally, where the Deathwatch really shine is in Kill Team, where the flexibility and versatility of teams makes them a perfect fit for the smaller-scale games. Deathwatch Kill Teams have access to a large number of weapon options and loadouts, and their bespoke heavy weapon – the Deathwatch Frag Cannon – is an incredibly good weapon in Kill Team.
Deathwatch wear primarily black armor with two notable exceptions: The left arm, which is painted silver, and their right shoulder pad, which retains the heraldry of their original chapter. Because they come from all different chapters, many Deathwatch marines retain badges and markers from their original chapters, which makes modeling and painting them a real joy – if you’ve ever wanted to paint just one marine from a given chapter, the Deathwatch are a great way to compromise on this, letting you source bits for and model many different chapters without having to commit to a larger force or being left with unusable models.
While the scheme may seem simple overall, there are multiple ways to tackle painting black and silver, and as always, we’re covering several different approaches.
I started doing Deathwatch right before the Deathwatch: Overkill boxed set came out, which was a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it was great to suddenly get lots of new models for the army I wanted to build. On the other hand, I had just bought a bunch of (small) metal shoulder pads that I now had no use for! Deathwatch have been a blast to work on, mostly because sourcing bits to make each model and tell its story is just a lot of fun.
Most of my Deathwatch were painted before I started doing more highlight work on my black, but I still like how the models hold up. It’s a pretty quick method for getting them on the table, but the devil is in the details.
Prime: Black. Always, but especially in this case.
The Armor: I do a base coat of thinned Abaddon Black on the armor after priming to get it uniform and give it a rich black shade that the primer doesn’t quite get to. I also hit any spots that may not have enough paint on them. From there, it’s a three-step process to do the edge highlights. I start with Kantor Blue and hit almost all the edges, then I do smaller bands of The Fang over that, and finish with Reaper Snow Shadow for the lightest spots on the corners and top edges.
The Metal Arm: The Deathwatch arms are done with a layer of Leadbelcher shaded with Drakenhof Nightshade to give it a colder steel tone. Then I highlight/edge highlight with Runefang steel and Necron Compound.
Red Heraldry: For the knee stripes and other red heraldry, I do two thin layers of Khorne Red, then paint the edges with Mephiston Red and highlight with Evil Sunz Scarlet. The Squad/Chapter Markings are freehanded using Reaper Pure White.
Cloaks and Tabards: The reds start with two thin coats of Khorne Red that I wet-blend up to Mephiston Red and highlight with Evil Sunz Scarlet. For the interiors I start with a layer of Rakarth Flesh and work up to Reaper Polished bone and highlight with a mix of polished bone and white. The markings inside the cloaks are done freehand with Mephiston Red.
Gold Trim: Retributor Armor shaded with Agrax Earthshade, then edge highlighted with Runefang Steel.
Other Details: So here’s the fun part. I tend to match the non-armor details to what the Marine’s parent chapter would have used, colors-wise. That means that Ultramarines get gold aquilas on their chest armor, while say, Blood Angels get white/gray aquilas.
The biggest thing about doing Deathwatch is to enjoy the assembly/modeling process. Not only does the Deathwatch Veterans sprue have a ton of great bits to play with, but you’ve also got 20 to 30 years of model history to draw on when you sit down to create your models! Even if I don’t remember all their names, I try and think of each model as an individual and how I can reflect their chapter’s heritage on their model. I like to look for inspiration by going through Lexicanum or other sources and finding prominent Deathwatch members in the fluff that I can convert. I also like to look through marine chapters that have been featured for ideas on how to make one of them for my Deathwatch. That’s how I got my Deathwatch Apothecary, who is Red Scorpions Apothecary Krieger Thann. Ebay bits resellers are great for doing Deathwatch by the way – I’ve got tons of bits I’ve picked up from small purchases here and there and I’m constantly going back through my bits box for additional things I can put onto a Deathwatch mini. Stuff like Blood Angels torsos work well not just for Blood Angels but also Minotaurs and other GrecoRoman-themed chapters. I could write an entire article on my Deathwatch conversions, so I’ll probably hold them for a future Army Showcase. Stay tuned for that!
I have quite a few Deathwatch models painted for Kill Team and what I love about them most is the fact that you can make every model a character, telling a unique story, and really take advantage of the depth of many Space Marine kits to create really unique models.
I’m going to cover the main colors on all Deathwatch and then some thoughts on how I approach individual models and try to tell a story and sell the idea of a veteran Space Marine who’s been seconded to the Deathwatch.
Taking the Black
So, Deathwatch armor is black, which means this is basically the most important color on the model. It’s a great color for a chapter like Deathwatch because it means the individual livery of each Marine can really pop against the neutral background. For my Deathwatch, I wanted a satin look which means I went with bluish highlights and also used satin varnish at the end. A key thing for me is to not actually paint the armor black so that you can still shade it down for some additional depth.
- This will sound crazy but I prime the model grey. Why? Well, because I tend to airbrush the red on the weapons first and then mask and by using a grey primer and then going over it afterwards with Flat Black, I ensure that I’m getting a uniform finish versus having some areas in primer and some areas in black paint (similar to how Duncan always sprays Chaos Black and then paints over in Abaddon Black).
- Depending on how lazy I’m feeling, I will then either zenithal or target highlight the armor with blue greys, using the airbrush. My go to colors are Scale75 Abyssal Blue (I am pretty sure this is very similar to P3’s Coal Black) and then Anthracite Grey. The goal here is to create tonal variation but you want to be careful not to be heavy-handed with the lighter highlight so as not to “grey out” the model. You still want it to mostly read as black, though once you add other colors and shading it will end up looking darker than it does at this stage anyway.
- I pin wash the armor in black. If you did the highlights right, then the shading will actually be quite noticeable, adding a lot of depth to the black (check out the panel line on the backpack in the image above, there’s a clear distinction).
- For highlights, I like to use blues because that helps sell the satin finish. I do three stages of highlights, an “every edge” highlight of Vallejo Model Colour Field Blue which is a desaturated darker blue grey, then Pale Blue (much lighter) on the top-facing edges, and finally Blue Grey Pale on all the corners or compound edges. This last highlight may as well be white and ends up creating a broad spectrum of contrast between the darkest shadows to the highest highlights.
An iconic part of the Deathwatch livery is the left silver arm with the fancy shoulder pad. Since red is a prominent spot color for Deathwatch, I like pushing the silver towards blue to get a nice warm/cool contrast.
- I typically leave the left arm separate from the body and zenithal airbrush it with Scale75 Black Metal and Heavy Metal for a nice strong silver.
- I then pin wash with black to get strong shadows.
- The most important bit is a blue glaze. In my case, I make a glaze from blue ink but there are lots of ways you can do this. I always ensure to push the glaze towards the corners of the shoulder pad to get a nice blue effect there.
- Lastly, I do an edge highlight of Scale75 Speed Metal to add more pop.
Other Common Colors
- Red: Red is a very common color on Deathwatch. I do all my weapon casings in red, lenses, kill team markings, you name it. In my case, I’ve mostly used the Reaper Gory Triad of reds and then edge highlighted with Vallejo Game Color Hot Orange to give me a nice saturated and warm red that contrasts with the cold blue steel and blue highlights of the black armor.
- Gold: There’s a lot of gold on Deathwatch and it’s what I use for a lot of the iconography. Again, I go for a warm color here and use a reddish gold, specifically Scale75 Viking Gold washed with Sepia.
As I already mentioned, a big draw of painting Deathwatch is the opportunity to make each model a character and tell a story.
For the model shown above, I wanted to capture the feel of a Space Marine of the Raptors chapter, who are known for their long-range marksmanship. So the first thing I think about is what the actual model will be: in this case, a Stalker Bolt Rifle Intercessor made the most sense as fitting that ‘sniper’ profile. In order to Raptor-ize him, aside from the obvious chapter shoulder pad, I added a bunch of bits like using the Primaris Captain helmet with advanced optics, a longer barrel on the rifle and a bipod on the front of the rifle. I also added a Tau skull to his base with a hole drilled between the eyes as if he’d been killed by a single, precise shot.
This is a great opportunity to use all those Space Marine bits you have and incorporate them to tell a story, using the black armor as a canvas. For the Lamenters Reiver pictured above, I wanted a very dynamic pose conveying an explosion of violence to capture the idea of instability inherent in the sons of Sanguinus. I also used bits from the Death Company kit and older Blood Angels upgrade sprue to add distinctive chapter character to the model. I have two Reivers in my Kill Team and they look nothing alike since is a Space Wolf and the other a Lamenter.
I use a lot of bare heads on my Deathwatch because this can help showcase the differences between chapters quite effectively, whether a screaming Blood Angel, mutton-Chopped Space Wolf or stoic Ultramarine. The Salamander gunner pictured above uses a Forge World head and shoulder pad to help convey the model’s veterancy status. He also had a lovingly painted tabard that I then covered up with a giant gun and flames painted on his kneepad that no one ever sees. But I know they’re there. The point is, aside from bits, you can incorporate chapter iconography or markings on some of the ~white~blackspace on the model like kneepads or greaves in order to further distinguish your models. What I try to avoid is a bunch of generic Marines with different colored right shoulder pads and there’s lots of ways to accomplish this between bits, iconography and posing.
There isn’t too much to painting Deathwatch. The main colors are black (most of the body, pack, etc), red and then metallics.
This guy’s part of the personal unit of Ordo Xenos Inquisitor Gaiden Lubrecht. They were painted along with the Inquisitor and his retinue in the same month as part of the original Goonhammer painting challenge.
Chaos black primer
Edge highlight black in Eshin grey
Paint metals in VMA Steel
Highlight the black with Dawnstone Grey
Wash the silver with Drakenhof
Spot highlights of Ulthuan Grey on the black armour
Highlight the metal with VMA Silver
Add text and markings with Ulthuan Grey
As this guy was an Ultramarine, I painted the blue areas in a 1:1 mix of VMA Silver and Macragge Blue, highlighted with the same mix plus some Ulthuan Grey.
Purge the Xenos
Deathwatch are an army that are a lot of fun to build and paint, but also very forgiving for the new player – although the black-heavy scheme can be difficult to make models stand out (and certainly makes them harder to photograph), it’s forgiving with regard to paint methods and details. Likewise, because Deathwatch armies are elite, they have lower model counts and they work very well in Kill Team, making them a very good faction for beginners to look at. Hopefully we’ve provided enough detail and inspiration here for players to work with as they do their own Deathwatch. As always, if you have any questions, comments, or methods of your own you’d like to share, feel free to leave a comment below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.