Tricorner Hack.

August 18th, 2010

Those of you familiar with my graphic novel Family Man will know that I have spent many, many hours drawing  people wearing tricorn hats.  It was a style of headgear that stuck around for quite some time, and it seems to be the first shaped hat designed expressly for the purpose of driving artists crazy.  (Later fashion provided us with the fedora and the cowboy hat, in which crucibles many a cartoonist has died screaming.)




I know that you don’t want to be that person who gives up and just draws a vague lump on your character’s head.  I can’t help you with the fedora or cowboy hat – but I’m here to lend you a hand with our friend the Tricorn.

There’s one very obvious solution for how to go about properly drawing a tricorn at any angle: buy an expensive reproduction hat online and pose or photograph it as necessary.  However, that will net you many hours of digging through endless Halloween store shopping results for shapeless faux-leather “Jack Sparrow” pirate hats and weird little woolen cereal bowls with a weak brim claiming to be “Colonial hats”. When finally you get to plonk down $400 on an accurate drawing prop, you’ll probably want to do violence to your fellow human beings.


The next most obvious solution, if you’re broke or slightly insane, is to hunt down vast numbers of screen captures from appropriate period films.  I will cop to having, on hand, roughly a gigabyte of stills from 1776: The Musical: The Movie.  I will not claim that these have been unhelpful, but perhaps you aren’t interested in paging through 53 blurry images of Blythe Danner in a corset in hopes of locating that one angle of a guy in a hat.


It’s also wise to keep in mind that any period film is ALSO filtered through the period when it was filmed – hence, in 1776 we learn that Thomas Jefferson really liked 70’s style brushed-up temples.

So if you are looking for the simplest, cheapest, most rudimentary tricorner hat hack: get ready.  This will provide you with the basic folded planes of the tricorn hat so that you can sketch out the essential shape; you’re on your own for deciding the style of the crown and providing the subtler details of material and curved blocking.

Those of you who have celebrated Purim by eating hamantaschen cookies will recognize this procedure.

YOU WILL NEED: a piece of foldable paper, a pair of scissors, a pencil.



Cut out a circle of paper.  Cut it to whatever size you like; don’t worry about the shape being perfect.  (a slightly oblong shape might actually get you more accurate results later on.)



Draw an equilateral (equal-sided) triangle inside the circle so that each point touches the edge.  Again, don’t worry too much about deadly accuracy; these are just folding guidelines.



Pinch in the paper at each point.  I find it’s easiest to first pinch up two points, then move on to the third.



Now that the points are pinched up, it should be easy for you to fold the paper along the pencil lines.  The triangle is still flat, but the extra half-circles of paper stick up.



Behold! Whichever corner sticks forward the most is now the front brim of the hat; the other two form the back.  The triangle is the underside of the hat, where your person would normally stick their head in.  You can arrange this little paper thingie at many common angles and immediately figure out the basic arrangement of the hat’s trickiest parts. You can see that the angle I held the model at roughly replicates Luther’s hat down in the inset image.

If you want to replicate the crown of the hat, make this model big enough to accommodate half of a ping-pong ball (for a round crown) or a bottle cap (flat crown), and glue or tape it on.

In actual hats, the “corners” were often not tightly pinched together, especially in the front, so if you want to replicate that look, let the tips of the triangle run off the paper, skip the pinching, and just fold up along the lines.

Now that you have this model, I recommend you go back and look at those screencaps, or at any trustworthy reference source, to fill yourself in on style and material details/divergences.  These hats were made of anything from light felt to heavy leather, decorated with ostrich feathers and gilt, tied down, worn askew, blocked so that they sat more on the back of the head than the front, etc, and came in every size from bitsy to engulfing.

Regardless, this little model will help you draw a tricky angle when your reference sources aren’t working out.

Enjoy the increased ease of drawing one of history’s most frustrating hats!


ADDENDUM:  lovely reader Jenn S. made up a nice little cheater template for those of you who don’t want to draw your own circles and triangles!  Click to view and download at full size, then print and use at will.  Thanks, Jenn!


7 Responses to “Tricorner Hack.”

  1. Matt on August 18, 2010 10:37 am

    And no doubt exceedingly useful.
    Though I confess, I was hoping for a wearable paper hat.
    Because that would be awesome.

  2. Vega on August 18, 2010 11:18 am

    I don’t suppose you’d know a good hack like this for a bicorne as well….


  3. Steve Walker on August 18, 2010 11:23 am

    My writer Jared Axelrod sent me the link to this and I have to say thank you! I draw a graphic novel series for Random House called The sons of Liberty and one of the hardest things I’ve had to draw, besides all the period clothing and architecture, has been tri-corner hats. I’ve done the trawl of the internets for the perfect image of a tri-corn and now have hundreds of pics of various versions of this most annoying haberdasher. by the way great bit of reference for these? Screen caps from the John Adams miniseries. Thanks for the nifty model.

    Steve W

  4. Lizzy on August 18, 2010 6:26 pm

    I saw this and my eyes almost popped out of my head. How simple yet clever!

    One of my favourite things, however, if you’re looking for costumes is the local costume reference book in my library with over 1500 pages of plates of costumes. I’m pretty sure every library has one.

  5. Utopia Moment » Blog Archive » Worst Case Scenario on August 18, 2010 7:02 pm

    [...] hats, and drawing them, on twitter. Dylan Meconis offered a tutorial on her blog on how to draw tricorn hats. I don’t have big problems with those. But I do with fedoras and cowboy hats. So another [...]

  6. Snowy on August 20, 2010 7:41 am

    Vega: I don’t draw things like this, but I do sew and make hats and all that jazz. Tricorn and bicorn hats are actually really simple to make. You start with a wool hat blank (see here although not all have such a sharp corner between the central dome and the brim, it doesn’t matter) and fold the brim up. Yep, just a dome in the middle with a circular brim. Imagine folding those three edges down and flattening them out on a table. You’ll have the same shape as in the hat blank, which is basically the same as the model Dylan offers plus the central dome part.

    For a bicorn, you simply fold two sides instead of three – you can make them uneven, you can pinch in and curve it to make some of the fancier versions, etc. because the wool is nice and malleable. Just imagine folding down the standing parts of a bicorn, and you’ll see it does the same thing as the tricorn – turns into a dome with a circular brim.

    A good thing to make the paper model out of for a more complicated end result is foil origami paper, which has foil on one side and plain white paper on the other (as in this photo – shiny on one side, plain white paper on the other). This will hold a shape really well, even curves on the brim that would be around the central dome of the hat, for example if you were trying to draw something like this . If I were doing that one in paper, I’d fold slightly more than a third straight up to form the back, then make a parallel fold slightly less than a third up to form the front and sort of pinch the front corners down a bit. You can always cut a hole in the center of the model where the dome would go and set it around something like a marble, so you have something to sculpt around. The foil paper will work like a charm for this method, and you should be able to pick it up in any craft store.

  7. Alan Tyson on August 26, 2010 2:41 pm

    This just saved my life! Well, more like the illustration I’m working on, but this was stressing me out enough that it feels like my life was on the line!

    Thank you kindly, ma’am.

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