The current crop of illustration programs is an array of mature, complex applications able to produce incredible works of print and Web art. But as these programs became more complex, users had to concentrate on technical mastery rather than on creativity.
A new version of Creature House’s Expression promises to put back some of what has been missing from the illustration-program field. Expression 3 combines aspects of Corel’s Painter, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe Photoshop, and it can complement any of those applications. But it’s also fun.
Expression 3’s tools include a wealth of design features that any Web or graphic designer can use. Like Painter, it’s best for — and will find its most widespread use among — people who draw by hand, with pen or brush. For that reason, we highly recommend using a pressure-sensitive tablet with this application.
At its core, Expression 3 is a vector-based drawing program. And though it imports and exports bitmap images, it ingeniously disguises vector drawings so they seem like pixel-based images. Back in 1997, Expression 1 was the first vector-graphics tool to employ full transparency, as well as soft-edged strokes that didn’t require any rasterizing (conversion to bitmap images). Adobe Illustrator and Macromedia FreeHand subsequently adopted both of these features, in one form or another.
Expression 3’s newest features concentrate on workflow and productivity, although this version introduces some new tools and effects, too. New style palettes cling to one another, which helps keep your desktop uncluttered. You can assign keyboard shortcuts to all menu items via the program’s preferences, and you can freeze layers through enhanced controls. Freezing a layer rasterizes it temporarily, speeding up redraw and effectively locking in changes without making them permanent.
Except for specific layer-based opacity control, layers work essentially as they do in Illustrator. If you export a file to Illustrator, all layers remain intact, even locked or invisible ones.
Strokes of Genius
Expression uses what its developers call skeletal strokes, user-definable brush styles that let you string vector or bitmap images along a path. Imagine a skeletal stroke as the digital equivalent of a pearl necklace: the thread is your vector path; the pearls, the individual instances of any drawing you decide to put there.
If you want to create a pattern or border on a drawing, for instance, a skeletal stroke will do the job. But you can also add animated images to a path. Imagine each pearl on your necklace turning, moving, or changing size.
You can resize, stretch, and transform each instance of an image defined as a skeletal stroke as it sits on its path. This version of Expression also lets you anchor images, making specific points or areas of the image unchangeable while leaving other parts open to transformation.
As in the previous version of Expression, you can save your files to a number of bitmap and vector formats, including GIF, TIFF, JPEG, Flash, Illustrator, EPS, and PDF. New to this version are Photoshop and PNG export options.
Just Pick Up Your Pen and Draw
Expression doesn’t let an excess of complicated tool commands interfere with the creative process. You use simple selection tools to change the style of image strokes, and the program’s printed tutorials will guide beginners and advanced users alike through the more complex features.
Expression 3’s Paint Style palette gives you fine control over each stroke. With a slider control, you can adjust the width and opacity of each stroke; with a tablet and stylus, you can define stroke edges as hard or soft, thick or thin. You can even apply styles to type, and the text remains editable.
New to Expression 3 are fringe textures — vector-based edges that simulate water-blotting effects on paper. Fill opacities and textures have also been expanded to include tiled bitmaps and something called reflection-mapped fills, which create three-dimensional metallic effects. A set of PSD and TIFF texture files is installed with the program.
A new Eraser mode lets you lighten or enhance feathering effects on an object. For best results, use a tablet and stylus, rather than a mouse, so you can play with pressure variations.
For comic-book artists, new Effect Line groups generate radiating lines and zoom lines, often used in comics to indicate movement and emotion. You can further transform these lines by applying skeletal strokes and varying the length, width, and spacing of the lines.
This application will surprise you at every turn. The greater your expertise, the more you’ll discover. Its one drawback is that the complexity of some tools sometimes overshadows the effect you’re after.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Expression 3 might just be the illustration world’s best-kept secret. If you’re an illustrator, a graphic designer looking for an interesting type effect, or a fine artist working on a computer, this program is for you.