Expression 2: Natural Media the Vector Way

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Several years ago Fractal Design begin marketing a program that in some ways seemed too good to be true. Developed by Creature House, Expression gave users natural-media tools like those in Painter but with one big difference: As a vector-based drawing package, Expression could lay down natural-media strokes that could then be easily edited; with Painter, in contrast, natural-media brushes simply paint pixels, leaving you with no easy way to broaden, darken, or even lengthen a stroke. Unfortunately, lost in the expansive shadow of Painter, Expression never really caught on.

The good news is that Creature House persisted and put loads of work into an update -- Expression 2. Although it builds on the same approach that made its predecessor at least a critical hit, version 2 adds so many new features and improvements that it's basically a whole new program. The list of new features goes on for two pages, but highlights include bitmapped strokes and import; variable stroke width and opacity; soft-edged and embossed fills; clipping masks; transparency control; paper textures; blending modes; object warping; Photoshop filters; PSD export with layers and alpha channels; Flash export; and many other features.

Creature House also seems to have put some effort into making the price right: Expression 2 (we tested version 2.2) sells for a mere $149 ($139 for the downloaded version). And however tempting it may be, don't write this software off as simply a natural-media specialty solution: Expression 2 is powerful and versatile enough to compete toe to toe with other vector illustration apps in all the areas you'd expect such a program to handle gracefully. Like CorelDRAW, Adobe Illustrator, and Macromedia FreeHand, Expression 2 has tools for creating and editing vector artwork (pens, geometric primitives, blend and text tools) and tools for artboard management (layers, object lists, swatch palette). Standard Macintosh and Windows color management is built-in, and the import and export filters are strong.

A Painterly Approach
Both Expression 2 and Corel Painter will catch the eye of electronic artists who are comfortable with traditional pens and brushes. Like Painter, Expression supports the use of a pressure-sensitive graphics tablet which underscores its affinity to natural media. The main difference is that Painter is a bitmap program. When you lay down a line of charcoal or watercolor with Painter, you are really applying pixels to your virtual canvas. You can undo the stroke and mess around with the erasers, but you can't change the shape of the line. With Expression, each stroke is just a fancy vector object. For example, if you choose a watercolor brush and paint a line, you can use traditional vector editing tools to alter it. Even better, you can apply a different brush to the same stroke and change, say, a watercolor stroke into charcoal, oil, or a line of gumdrops.

This is not to say that Expression is a replacement for Painter. Painter's phenomenal natural media and superb dynamic layer features are still the most sophisticated of any program, and it will continue to warrant plenty of loyalty and respect. But Painter is also extremely complex, with its seemingly infinite array of options and variables, and it takes a painterly approach rather than an illustrative approach to electronic art. Rather than draw an object and then duplicate it and feather the edges, for instance, with Painter you might draw with a pastel and then smudge it. Thanks to the wonders of both rasterization and Adobe Illustrator file formats, you can swap artwork relatively easily between Painter and Expression to get the best of both natural-media worlds.

Different Strokes
Expression 2's unique vector-stroke technology let me quickly create illustrations that would be difficult or impossible in CorelDRAW or Adobe Illustrator. To get going in Expression 2, simply draw a vector path. You can then assign any of four attributes to this path: no stroke, plain stroke (color only), gradient stroke (gradient color), or skeletal stroke. The program really centers about the skeletal stroke, which leads to a whole new world of power, flexibility, and convenience. The skeletal stroke is also what differentiates this program from others.

A skeletal stroke can be a natural-media stroke such as watercolor, ink splatters, a string of jellybeans, or even an animated giraffe. You can define areas of a skeletal stroke that repeat and produce a train with an infinite number of cars or create a stroke with multiple facets and produce a random assortment of different-colored flowers. At any time, the skeletal stroke can be altered and the path itself can be edited or assigned a different attribute. And make no mistake, these are not the inflexible "natural media" pens you see in Illustrator and CorelDraw. They are infinitely mutable and behave more like Painter brushes than vector paths.

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We transformed two basic strokes to the strokes at the far left by choosing different Skeletal Strokes from the Strokes window.

Skeletal strokes can consist of either bitmaps or vector objects, but you can control the appearance of a stroke in many ways. For example, you can specify that certain parts of a stroke repeat or stretch, and you can define a multi-view stroke that consists of several strokes applied in consistent or random order.

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In the top portion of the screen above we are defining the central car as repeating. The stroke underneath shows the result.

Strokes may vary in opacity, color, edge softness, and width (both static and variable). They may be assigned embossing, paper texture, and blending mode, and you can break them at joints to form a picture frame.

Expression 2 ships with a nice variety of skeletal strokes to get you started -- including various natural-media strokes, numerous direction strokes such as arrows and pointing hands, fun animal shapes such as fish and a mouse, and many others -- but half the fun is developing your own strokes, which can be organized into library folders (Version 2 also supports strokes created in version 1). Expression supports a pressure stylus and does so with exquisite sensitivity. We were continually amazed at how much this program resembles Corel Painter, except the strokes are vector paths and so may be continually adjusted and transformed.

Expression has two other kinds of strokes -- basic and gradient -- along with three types of fills: basic, gradient, and pattern. The attributes of both strokes and fills are controlled via the compact Paint Style and Attributes palettes.

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The compact Paint Style palette lets you control the appearance of both strokes and fills.

You can draw with a freehand or Bezier pen and with polyline or B-spline tools, as well as rectangles and ellipses -- all available via the Toolbox. Each path has handles for adjusting the shear and thickness, or you can use the palettes to change these attributes. Combined with rulers, grid, and node snap, it's possible to create illustrations with an excellent degree of precision.

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Stroke width and shear can be instantly adjusted with Expression 2's convenient handles.

Images and Text
Creature House appears to have put much thought into the new interface, which incorporates some innovative and convenient improvements. For example, instead of the usual spin bars or inaccurate sliders for changing numerical values, there are little meters that look like mileage gauges. Numbers may be entered by double-clicking on the meter or by pulling the mouse up or down over the desired numerical place and the decimal point may be moved with the mouse as well. This may not sound like a big deal, but if you are changing the value from 6 to 600, this method is much faster than spin bars.

Like other graphics programs, the interface relies heavily on dockable palettes. There's an optional area on the left side of the display where you can park palettes, but I found this setup occupied too much of the display. If you are using a stylus, you'll appreciate the ability to rotate the working page to any angle, and animators will love the document flipping feature: Use the square bracket keys ([ and ]) to quickly page through a stack of windows.

The new bitmap tools are welcome additions, but don't expect an embarrassment of riches here: There are two basic brushes -- soft round and pixel (basically a pencil) -- plus an eraser. The Paint Style palette provides adjustments for hardness, spacing, opacity, and size plus a Draw on Mask button for protecting parts of the bitmap from editing. There's a really cool built-in tracing function for converting bitmaps to vector paths and a warp feature for distorting the bitmap (the warp feature can also be applied to vectors). The program supports Photoshop plug-ins, too. I found these features most useful for creating interesting strokes, although the inclusion of plug-in support and adjustments for coloration, brightness, contrast, hue, saturation, and lightness is convenient for on-the-fly image adjustment.

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The Paint Style palette for bitmap editing provides a few brushes.

Text support is very good as well. You can bind text to a path or fill objects with text, as well as adjust alignment, leading, and scaling. Unfortunately, there's not much flexibility in text bound to a path. For example, you can't offset the text from the path. However, because text objects are simply special instances of vector paths, all operations and attributes can be applied to text itself.

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Expression 2 includes extensive support for text, including the ability to apply strokes to text.

Ins and Outs
Although Expression doesn't emphasize the Web, version 2 supports Flash export. The Flash Setting palette has buttons for assigning both motion and color effects to each of three user interaction states: normal, over, and click. What's unique in Expression is that you can animate a multi-stroke (a stroke that has several variations, sort of like Painter's Image Hose). When you export such a stroke to Flash, the animation goes along with it -- the shape parameter will vary with time.

Expression's native format isn't supported outside the program, but there are extensive new export (and import) filters, including AICB (Adobe Illustrator on the Clipboard), so you can cut and paste to any other program that supports this clipboard. Illustrations may be exported to Illustrator 3, 5, and 7; PostScript EPS; Flash; and popular bitmap formats, including PSD. Other import formats include Windows Metafile and popular bitmap formats. And, of course, items may be transferred via the AICB clipboard.

Creature House also included many small but useful enhancements in version 2, including positionable crop marks; a non-editable onion skin layer for tracing; convenient color management; and an eyedropper that can pick up true object color or the color actually shown on the display after application of attributes such as transparency. The more you dig around in this program, the richer it seems to get. And digging around in it firsthand won't cost you anything but some modem time: You can download the program for 30-day tryout at Creature House's Web site.

The Natural
Expression 2 is vector illustration carried to the ultimate, and it makes the competition look a little wan by comparison. It's a steal at $149, and if you own version 1, you can upgrade for $99. This reviewer would go so far as to label this a must-buy tool for the graphic designers and illustrators in the crowd.

Would I recommend Expression 2 as a general-purpose vector illustration program? Yes. Would I recommend it over the competition? That depends on what features are most important to you. Each of the competing programs has its own strength -- Illustrator's Adobe-ware compatibility and text tools, CorelDRAW's interactive drawing features, FreeHand's Flash export. Expression's forte is the ability to work with vector-based natural media. Even if you can't wean yourself from your current illustration app, you should easily get your money's worth out of this innovative program if you like its vector-based natural-media approach .

Read more by Susan Glinert.

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