I always thought malen is to draw and färben is to paint but then apparently there's this zeichnen too. Anyone mind sharing their thoughts?

  • 8
    What did dictionaries tell you?
    – Matthias
    Jan 18, 2017 at 15:59
  • 1
    Different language duplicate: german.stackexchange.com/q/25627
    – Jan
    Jan 18, 2017 at 16:02
  • Malen is to paint, while färben is to color. Färben is used when you apply an overall color to something.
    – Janka
    Jan 18, 2017 at 16:27

4 Answers 4



zeichnen = to draw

You use a pen or pencil and draw lines on paper or other flat and smooth surfaces. If you want to fill areas, you have to hatch those areas (to hatch = schraffieren). Without hatching the result of »zeichnen« are only thin lines. This result is called »Zeichnung« (english: drawing). A typical Zeichnung is monochromatic, but if you use colored pens, you also can get colored drawings.

This is a result of zeichnen: zeichnen


malen = to paint

You use a brush, tip it into a colored liquid and then you use the color-soaked brush to applicate the color onto a more or less stabile surface. (You can not paint a picture on the hair of a woman.) You fill areas when you are painting, those areas build a pattern that will be interpreted as a picture. If you want to get thin lines, you have to use a thin brush. The suface on which you applicate the color can be smooth or also rough (like stone, or a wall made of bricks). The result is called »Gemälde« (painting) or often just »Bild« (picture). A typical Gemälde is not monochrome, typically you will see lots of colors in a painting.

This is a result of »malen«: malen


färben = to dye, to color

You do not applicate color onto a stabile surface, and normally you don't use a pen or brush for färben. You dye/color a fabric or hair. Typically you dunk the fabric into a colored liquid. If you dye hair, you applicate the color onto the hair, and you can do this with a brush, but since hair is not a flat surface, you will not get a colored pattern that will be interpreted as a picture.

You also can färben food like this pasta: färben

  • 1
    Great answers! Good idea to add pictures to give examples.
    – Artery
    Jan 19, 2017 at 16:19
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    Alle Bilder von publicdomainpictures.net Jan 20, 2017 at 14:29
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    Cool! So ist es super und wir sind auf der sicheren Seite, Danke!
    – Takkat
    Jan 20, 2017 at 14:48
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    @Artery: Im Gegenteil. Beispiele können nicht das Spekturm des Begriffs wiedergeben, das könnten allenfalls umfangreiche Bildersammlungen. Zu den ältesten Zeichnungen der Welt zählen Kreidezeichnungen die weder aus feinen Linien bestehen, noch auf flachen Oberflächen angebracht sind. Die schwarzen Shirts im Beispielbild, die nicht schraffiert sind, strafen den Autor Lügen. Moderne Instrumente wie Computer finden auch keine Berücksichtigung - lt. Definition kann man damit weder Zeichnen, noch Malen. Den Du-Stil finde ich zudem unsäglich. Jan 21, 2017 at 4:59
  • @userunknown Vor allem Du-Stil und 'applicate'. Wer nutzt bitte schön 'applicate'? apply ist das gängige Wort...
    – adjan
    Jan 21, 2017 at 12:55

The distinction is a technical one: "malen" is to paint with a brush and colour and "zeichnen" to draw with a pen or pencil. However, in everyday usage, many people (and especially children) mix up the concepts and say "malen" when using a pencil. The reverse is less common, though.

While "malen" can be both creative as an art form or just mean applying colour to something, "färben" does not carry the additional meaning of an art technique.

For a clearer distinction see the Duden for "malen", "zeichnen" and " färben".

  • Was ist mit malen und zeichnen am Computer? Vielleicht noch ein Halbsatz zu technischem Zeichnen? Jan 18, 2017 at 16:13
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    More generally spoken, zeichnen rather implies clear, fine lines. After all, there are other tools in use for malen and zeichnen beside pencils and brushes, and there are also some brushes that lend themselves more to zeichnen than to malen (thin brushes used for calligraphy). Jan 19, 2017 at 8:03
  • 1
    I assume as children use (coloured) pens with not only fine lines (crayons, felt pen) and not only brushes for colouring their concept of "malen" is another than the pure technical, the word usage in_families (including parents) is "malen" = "do some painting". (this changed/new usage is not reflected in the duden yet) Jan 20, 2017 at 7:43
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    @O.R.Mapper: Kreidezeichnung? Jan 20, 2017 at 10:24

I often see "zeichnen" used to express a way to draw clear lines. Often it's either meant for technical or skillful drawing.

While "malen" originally describes the art of painting, it's very common to use it for unskillful or untechnically drawing, but not in a disrespectful way ( that would be "kritzeln" or "gekritzel" ).

Examples: "Meine Schwester kann gut zeichnen." - My sister is good at drawing

"In der Grundschule haben wir oft mit Buntstiften gemalt." - In elementary school, we often drew pictures with (color-)pencils

"Kannst du das mal aufmalen? Ich kann mir das nicht vorstellen." - Can you draw me a picture? I can't visualize it.

"Ich habe eine Zeichnung von dem Gebäude angefertigt." - I created a drawing of the Building


@Hubert Schölnast: Very nice explanation!

I might add just one thing: Zeichnen can be a very creative, and original art, as well as a very exact craft (down to the millimeter, as needed in technical drawings / technischen Zeichnungen). The result of malen can be very detailed but will not be exact.

  • 1
    This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review Jan 21, 2017 at 7:14
  • Danke für den Hinweis. Ich habe den Unterschied zu malen ergänzt.
    – Kristina
    Jan 21, 2017 at 8:48

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