How to Paint Everything – Space Marines Heraldry and the Codex Astartes

This article is part of a larger series on how to paint Space Marines. To return to that series, click here.

In our How to Paint Everything series we look at how to paint, well, everything, with different techniques and approaches from different artists. In this article we’re looking at how to paint Space Marine heraldry, with a specific eye toward the Codex Astartes.

The Codex Astartes is kind of a deep cut on 40k lore; it’s a book on Space Marine Chapter organization written by Roboute Guilliman about ten thousand years before the current era and covers everything from how Chapters are organized to how they mark themselves by color. Chapters which adhere to these rules are called Codex-Compliant Chapters and they make up the vast majority of active Space Marines.

As a result, while the Codex Astartes doesn’t so much factor into the game much, it has a massive impact on how players paint their armies. Company and squad markings, veteran honours, and sergeant markings are all covered, and these may all vary chapter to chapter. Even within the Codex Astartes there are different options to pick from when building your force and that can make the prospect of picking a chapter and company pretty daunting.

In this article we’re going to cover the Codex Astartes and what it means for painting space marines, with examples and guidelines of how to paint the heraldry which features on the majority of space marines. We won’t be diving so much into the lore of the Codex Astartes, but the good news is that if you’re looking for that, you can check out our Lore Explainer on the Codex Astartes

Covered in this Article

  • The basics of the Codex Astartes – what it is and how its used to mark space marine squads and companies, and how to paint them.
  • Space Marine squad markings.
  • How to give your marines character, with everything from campaign badges to individual honors.
  • How to denote officers in your Chapter according to the Codex Astartes.

The Codex Astartes essentially gives you as a painter a guideline for how to paint your space marines so they appear to all belong to the same group within the chapter. Your marines don’t have to all be from the same chapter, and you are perfectly free to ignore the Codex Astartes, even if you’re playing what’s in-canon a Codex-compliant chapter. It’s your army and your models; paint them however it makes you happy to do.

That said, it can also be rewarding to paint your models according to the lore, using the strict guidelines laid out. If you want to do this, the Codex Astartes is a solid framework for doing that. Typically painters going this route will pick a single company for the majority of their marines to be drawn from (excepting Terminators and Veterans, usually, who are in the first company). So let’s talk about companies.

Space Marine Heraldry

Credit: SRM

Space Marines generally follow a pretty common layout for imagery.

  1. Excepting the Deathwatch, marines place their chapter icon on their left shoulder pad. Here’ that’s the Ultramarines, so their icon goes there.
  2. Chapters typically indicate their Battlefield role on the right shoulder pad. These are Assault Intercessors, so they have the crossed arrows for Close Support/Assault Squads. The Squad number is displayed over top of that, in this case using roman numerals – this is the 8th squad of the company.
  3. Codex-Compliant chapter marines will then indicate their company using the color of the shoulder pad trim; in this case these marines use gold trim to indicate they are from the 2nd company.
  4. Extra space on tilting plates, back banners, and kneepads can be used for personal heraldry or squad heraldry. In this case, the squad uses a halved checkerboard/white stripe pattern to mark themselves.
  5. Campaign badges mark a squad’s participation in some campaign or series of battles. In this case the skull with the yellow circle marks the unit as having participated in some campaign (though it’s not clear which).

Company Designation

Space Marine Chapters are organized into groups of one hundred warriors called Companies. Each company is led by a Captain and two Lieutenants, and is comprised of between ten and twenty squads of marines, each led by a sergeant. Each company has a color associated with it, and while these colors can vary by chapter – and even by edition – the most recent Codex lists the following as the company colors of the Ultramarines.

Note that the last color there is just the standard Ultramarines blue – the 10th company is the scout company, and doesn’t tend to actually use trim on their shoulder pads, nor a color for it.

The process for painting these is pretty straightforward: Paint your models normally, then come back and paint the base color for the shoulderpad trim, and shade and edge highlight that appropriately. That said, let’s run through some specific examples.

  1. The First company are veterans, and use white helmets and shoulderpads. You’ll ideally want to prime these with either white or Grey Seer if you can. Failing that, you can paint them with Grey Seer or another off-white, then shade with Apothecary White Contrast paint and edge highlight with White Scar or another pure white.
  2. The second company use gold trim (well, these days – more on that in a bit). The easiest way to tackle these is to basecoat Retributor Armour and then wash with Agrax Earthshade (cool) or Reikland Fleshshade (warm), depending on what kind of tone you want. Highlight with Liberator Gold and for extra shiny edge highlight with Runefang Steel. 

    White Panthers Tactical Marines Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones
    White Panthers Tactical Marines. Credit: Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones

    Note that second company marines previously used bright yellow instead of gold until about 4th edition, as in the example of my White Panthers, above. If you want to replicate this classic look, I do this by doing a basecoat of Averland Sunset, then I highlight with Flash Gitz Yellow in progressive mixes and edge highlight with Flash Gitz.

  3. The third company red trim. Basecoat Mephiston Red, wash with Carroburg Crimson, highlight with Evil Sunz Scarlet.
  4. Basecoat Warpstone Glow, shade with Coelia Greenshade, highlight with Moot Green.
  5. Basecoat Mechanicus Standard Grey, shade with Nuln Oil, Highlight Celestra Grey. FOr a darker shade, start with Corvus Black and highlight with Mechanicus Standard Grey.
  6. Basecoat the orange with Jokaero Orange, shade with Fuegan Orange, and edge highlight with Fire Dragon Bright.
  7. These can be either a magenta or a violet, depending on your preference. For a Magenta, start with Screamer Pink, shade with a 50/50 mix of Carroburg Crimson and Nuln Oil, then highlight with Screamer Pink and a a mix of Screamer Pink and White. For more of a violet, start with Xereus Purple, shade with Druchii Violet, highlight with Daemonette Hide.
  8. The 8th company use silver trim, and this is a very easy company to paint as a result. Basecoat Leadbelcher, shade with Nuln Oil, highlight with Runefang Steel.
  9. The light blue can be done a few ways, but my method is to start with Lothern Blue, shade that with Drakenhof Nightshade, and then highlight with Lothern Blue and Blue Horror.
  10. This one’s easy – no trim. Just paint the shoulderpads the color you were already going to paint them.

What if my Chapter Isn’t Codex Compliant?

Look, man. This article is about painting chapters using the Codex Astartes. I don’t know why you’re asking that question now, but the deal is that if you aren’t going off these, or your chapter isn’t compliant, they probably have some other way to denote companies or clans or whatever. The Flesh Tearers aren’t really considered a Codex Compliant Chapter, but they still adhere to this by doing custom tear colors to denote their company, and these pretty much mimic the style of the Codex Astartes.

On the other hand, the Dark Angels denote their company via a symbol on their kneepad, with different designs denoting the company they belong to. Note that the Ravenwing and Deathwing use totally different iconography and armor colors and so don’t use this same kneepad-based scheme – they instead display personal heraldry on their kneepads.

So yeah, you’ve got options and there’s a lot to think about when it comes to making your own heraldry. For more advice on painting heraldry, check out our guide to painting heraldry and livery. And if you want to go old school, you can take a look at our guide to painting legion heraldry from the Horus Heresy for more inspiration from a time that predates the Codex Astartes.

Combat Role

In addition to the company designation space marines also have an icon – typically displayed on the right shoulder – which marks their squad’s battlefield role. There are four roles: Battleline, Veteran, Close Support, and Fire Support, and each of these is denoted by a specific symbol.

Note that some chapters may use a modified version of this iconography. The clearest example are the Dark Angels, who use alternate icons for their Tactical, Veteran, and Devastator squads:

Combat role may also be designated on a kneepad or leg armor, depending on the scheme, or may be designated by something like helmet color in the case of a chapter like the Blood Angels.

Unless you’re a sicko like me, your primary method of placing these symbols on your models will be via transfers. We could write an entire article on applying transfers and in fact that’s what we’ve done – check out our How to Paint Everything article on Transfers and Decals, here.


For Codex-Compliant chapters Rank is typically denoted by the color of a marine’s helmet. Red is the standard color for sergeants, white denotes veterans, red with a white stripe is a veteran sergeant, and a red and white stripe denotes a lieutenant.

Additionally note that Officers – Sergeants and those ranking higher – typically have a skull on their helmet. Ultramarine captains just have standard blue helmets with a skull on them – there isn’t really a custom color to denote them.

Also note that whether a chapter follows these often has as much to do with the chapter’s color scheme as it does their adherence to the Codex Astartes – it doesn’t make a ton of sense for Blood Angels to mark sergeants with red helmets, for example.

Special Units

Finally there are four special types of units in Space Marine chapters which don’t necessarily follow the same rules as the rest of the chapter – Apothecaries, Chaplains, Librarians, and Techmarines all have their own armor colors – white, black, blue, and red, respectively – and will only use the chapter iconography and colors on  a single shoulder pad, while the other marks their station.

These marines may or may not belong to a company, depending on your chapter organization.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately you’re very much free to paint your marines however you want, and I’d recommend you do so. That said, there’s a ton of fun to be had in coming up with an organizational structure and following that, and one of the coolest things you can do in the hobby is build a fully company of space marines from some chapter. Hopefully this guide gave you the inspiration you needed or at least helped you puzzle out which colors to use when painting your trim.

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This article is part of a larger series on how to paint Space Marines. To return to that series, click here.