How to Paint Everything – Space Marines

In our How to Paint Everything Series we cover how to paint well, everything, with a look at different methods and techniques from different painters and with an eye for different skill levels. In this article, we’re covering how to paint Space Marines, the genetically modified warriors tasked with the protection of the Imperium of Man in Warhammer 40k.

The Space Marines are practically synonymous with Warhammer 40k, with the iconic look of massive warriors clad in power armor now defining the setting and its grimdark aesthetic. Space Marines have been the poster boys for the game since its earliest days, starting with the cover of Rogue Trader, which saw Crimson Fists squaring off against Orks.

Every single edition of Warhammer 40k has launched with a starter box featuring space marines squaring off against some other foe, ensuring that nearly everyone who plays the game will have at least a space marine or two sitting around their homes. They’re the game’s most popular army – at least in part due to this – and there are a ton of different ways to play them on the table and paint them.

The warriors of the Adeptus Astartes are broken into chapters, each roughly a thousand warriors (though that changed a bit with the Indomitus Crusade), all of whom can trace their lineage back to one of twenty first founding chapters. Of those, two were destroyed leaving no records and nine rebelled against the Imperium, turning to Chaos during the Horus Heresy – those are the Chaos Space Marine legions and they’re a different faction.

The remaining nine loyalist legions originally comprised thousands of marines but were split into a number of smaller chapters after the Heresy. While the first founding chapters stuck around, many new chapters were formed, each with their own color schemes, heraldry, and methods of warfighting. Over time these chapters have created their own lore, heroes, stories, and relics. And the number of chapters has increased as well – subsequent foundings have split chapters growing too large, expanding the number of marines. This is a great cover for hobbyists who want to create custom chapters – there’s plenty of reason for your marines and their paint scheme to exist.

On the tabletop, marines are largely split into chapters, though how these are defined in game rule terms has changed over the years. There are five “special” groups of marines – Black Templars, Blood Angels, Dark Angels, Deathwatch, and Space Wolves – who have their own Codexes, while the rest tend to be rolled up into some form of Codex: Space Marines.

Covered in this Article Series

  • The basic elements of Space Marine models and how to paint them – from power armor to power swords to cloth and lenses.
  • Links to the How to Paint article for each of the first founding chapters of Space Marines, from Blood Angels to Space Wolves.
  • Links to the How to Paint Articles for the most famous successor chapters in the 40k lore, from Black Templars to Silver Templars.
  • How to paint a number of custom Successor chapters, each with their own unique heraldry.

Common Visual Elements of Space Marines

While each chapter of space marines has its own unique color scheme and heraldry, there are a number of common and shared visual elements between them. Rather than repeat these in each article, we’re including a number of the most common elements here. Note that more chapter-specific elements like the Space Wolves’ fur pelts and frost weapons will still be in their chapter article.

Gemstones and Lenses - Click to Expand

If you’re painting Space Marines, you’re going to have to paint some lenses on the marines and likely some gemstones as well. The process for painting these is pretty similar – you can find everything you need for this in our guide to painting gemstones, lenses, and vials, but if you need something faster for painting eye lenses on Space Marines, you can find a quick tutorial here.

The process for painting lenses is the same as painting gemstones. You generally want to start with a black area (or darkened), which you’ll work inside, leaving a small line of black around the edge as you go. Start by painting your base color. If you’re painting red lenses, this will be Mephiston Red or Khorne Red most of the time. Once that’s down, you want to shade the lens, with a brighter color toward the front corner and a darker tint toward the back corner of the helmet. I do this by shading the eye with Carroburg Crimson and then Nuln Oil. 

Finally it’s time to do the extreme highlights. Put a dot of black paint in the back corner of the lens, and put another, smaller dot of white inside that. Highlight the opposite corner of the lens using a bright shade of your color. For red lenses this will often be Evil Sunz Scarlet. 

Scrolls and Purity Seals - Click to Expand

If your marine chapter is composed of particularly pure warriors burdened with an excess of faith, they’re likely to be covered in purity seals and parchment that chronicles their great deeds. Painting these is pretty straightforward, but can be daunting since painting good purity seals means creating small lines to suggest the presence of writing. The good news is there’s an easy way to make this effect stand out.

While Purity Seals are lighter in color, they’re usually going to be attached to a model you want to prime black. Either way, I start by painting them with a couple of thin coats of Rakarth Flesh. Once that’s dry, I wash the whole thing with Agrax Earthshade.

Next I go back and highlight that with Rakarth Flesh again and then highlight a second time – including the edges – with Reaper Polished Bone (Wraithbone in GW paints, give or take). This is also when I paint the wax seal – it’s Mephiston Red, and I’ll wash that with Carroburg Crimson and then highlight it with Evil Sunz Scarlet. 

Now it’s time for the lettering. The “correct” way to do this is to use a very fine pointed brush and and paint lines with a dark brown. But if you want to go faster and have an easier time with it, I’ll let you in on a secret: Micron pens. The .005 pen gives you a very small point and is perfect for drawing the lines that work on something like this.

Using the pen start marking small lines (squiggles if you’re feeling brave), leaving the occasional space> your wording should have an “F-shaped” patter more or less, as that’s just how people read in English.

One Last Tip: Watch out if you paint over the micron ink. Water can reactivate it, causing problems like smearing.

Power Swords - Click to Expand

If you’re painting Space Marines of any variety, you’re going to eventually have to paint some power weapons, usually power swords. For more on how to paint power swords and glowing weapons, check out our guide on painting power weapons here.

Heraldry - Click to Expand

One of the cool things about painting Space Marines is applying the complex painting and heraldry of your chapter. We’ll dive more into the heraldry for specific chapters in the articles on each chapter, but if you’re just looking for a general set of guidelines or inspiration on painting heraldry, there are two sources we’d recommend:

Painting Space Marine Chapters

There are nine first founding chapters of space marines – chapters founded during the Great Crusade which remained loyal to the Emperor – which are still around in Warhammer 40,000. Each of these has dozens or hundreds of successor chapters as they’ve been split up over the years and their gene-seed has been used to create new foundings of Space Marines. Each chapter has its own color scheme and quirks and deserves an article all its own – so that’s what we’ve done. Check the sections below for links to articles on how to paint specific marine chapters, both First Founding and Successor.

First Founding Chapters - Click to Expand

The first founding chapters are the modern-day versions of the nine legions of space marines which remained loyal to the Emperor. These are the big canonical chapters of Space Marines in the lore (though many successors also receive lots of mention). These are among the most complicated chapters of Space Marines from a painting standpoint, with tons of lore and heraldry. Many have codexes of their own. Click on the banner below to go to the How to Paint article for that chapter.

Note: We’ve put Deathwatch, Crimson Fists, and Black Templars into the “Successors” section for accuracy’s sake, so if you’re looking for those, check out the that section below.

Heresy Note: While most loyalist chapters more or less kept the same color schemes between the Heresy and the 41st millennium, some have changed things up. We’ll be adding Heresy schemes to each chapter’s page, starting with Dark Angels.

Successor Chapters - Click to Expand

There’s a massive number of space marine successor chapters in the lore of Warhammer 40k – too many to count or name – leaving players free to come up with their own chapters, each as plausible as the last. There are however a few special successor chapters worth mentioning, which have their own rules and lore in the canon, and those get their own mention here.

Beyond those, many painters on the Goonhammer staff have painted successor chapters of lesser repute or of their own making entirely. You can check out some of our creations – with guides on painting them – here.

More to Come

That wraps up our look at how to paint Space Marines but with a faction this popular you can bet we’ll be updating this page periodically and adding more successor chapters and methods, including full sections for pre-Heresy marines, so check back in the future. And if you’ve got your own recipes or marines you want to share, or there’s a chapter your looking for us to cover, drop us a note in the comments below or email us at