Expression 3: Illustration Tools Meet Natural-Media Brushes
If you've never experienced Creature House Expression, be prepared for a stunning tour de force in creative illustration. If you are already familiar with this program, you'll want to invest in an upgrade to version 3, which includes amazing fringe and embossed fills, plus a worthwhile collection of new tools and interface improvements.
The revolutionary technology behind Expression 3 is its ability to apply graphics along a vector path. The graphic can take any form and have multiple attributes such as color and opacity. More importantly, Expression allows both lines and fills to have the soft, blurry, blendable edges so necessary for creating the realistic effects that are the hallmark of image-editing programs such as Corel Painter and Adobe Photoshop. Lines in Expression may look like natural-media strokes (brushes, ink), repeat as patterns of shapes, or consist of gradients or bitmaps (see figure 1). But unlike the strokes in Painter and Photoshop, Expression's strokes remain completely editable.
Figure 1: A plain stroke with a variety of effects applied. Notice the red editable nodes, which let you reshape the path at will.
Expression's natural-media strokes are comparable to those in Corel's Painter. That is, you just choose a brush -- watercolor, oil, chalk -- and start painting. However, if you aren't happy with a stroke in Painter, you are constrained to using the Undo key, because each stroke is composed of individual pixels. But in Expression, all the strokes are vector paths, so editing is simply a matter of adjusting the nodes that make up the path (see figure 2).
Figure 2: A path with a fish stroke applied. To tweak the fish, just edit the path nodes.
The program ships with an abundant assortment of predefined strokes, but of course you can design your own. You can, for example, set start- and end-points and define which portions of the stroke repeat or remain constant (see figure 3).
Figure 3: The central car is set to repeat, so a long stroke produces a train with multiple cars and a single caboose and engine.
You can also define multi-view strokes that are useful for exporting as Flash files and animations (see figure 4).
Figure 4: This stroke is actually composed of ten different views. This figure shows the first stroke, or frame. The entire stroke can be exported as a single Flash file or animated GIF.
The mind-boggling assortment of adjustments lets you fashion incredibly complex effects that can be emulated only with difficulty in other drawing programs. For example, you can vary opacity, add paper textures, change blending modes, set soft edges and blurs, apply fringes, adjust the light source of an embossed fill, apply reflection maps with variable widths, colorize, and adjust the stroke's shear, joints, twist, and corner treatment. And we are talking here just about the path outlines. Expression has another whole set of magic for fills.
Fill It Up
Although its extraordinary path effects are the stars of Expression, the program also boasts a stunning array of imaginative fills (see figure 5). Version 3 adds several new fill types -- positionable tiled bitmaps, reflection-mapped embossed fills for creating photorealistic metallic objects, and user-definable edges that mimic torn paper and watercolor blotting, and allow fills to leak beyond the binding path (see figure 6). Incredible!
Figure 5: A plain old circle takes on new dimensions with Expression's amazing fills and strokes.
Figure 6: The dark rectangles show the actual stroke. You can see the fringe fills diffusing behind the stroke to create interesting edges.
Other additions in version 3 are more evolutionary than revolutionary -- rounded rectangles, more precise transformation and text tools, and the ability to customize context menus and keyboard shortcuts. We did like the new Star/Twirl tool (see figure 7) and were amused by the new Effects Lines which, according to the documentation, are the heart of action and Japanese Manga cartoons and are used to show speed and texture via radiating paths (see figure 8).
Figure 7: The new Star/Twirl tool at work.
Figure 8: The pink exploding lines were easily created with the new Effects Line tool.
Easy Does It
To give users quick access to the program's sophisticated features, Expression's developers created a slick set of 11 palettes that nest unobtrusively on the left side of the screen (see figure 9). Tucked inside each palette are cleverly designed buttons, pop-ups, and sliders for instantly changing the look and feel of each object in your document. We especially like its method of setting numerical values -- tiny meters whose numbers can be swiftly dragged up and down with the mouse.
Figure 9: This petite palette holds the controls for stroke attributes -- end caps, shear, twist, dash on/off, and a set of modes that determine how the stroke follows the shape of the path.
We didn't find Expression especially difficult to master, but a program with this many features can't be learned instantly. Fortunately, the boxed version ships with a nicely written manual, but we wish the short tutorial section was more detailed and contained some step-by-step handholding.
Even if you don't do much creative illustration, you might want to check out Expression 3 as a reasonably priced vector drawing package. Far cheaper than CorelDraw Graphics Suite ($529 list) or Illustrator ($399 list), Expression is a full-featured and robust application, with all the functionality you might need, including: layers, grids, guides, and numerical transformations; industry-standard color management; a wealth of drawing tools; and excellent import and export filters.
You can import all popular bitmap formats in version 3 including PNG and Photoshop-native PSD. Vector formats include Illustrator 8 (and earlier). And, when you open an Illustrator file, you can choose to convert any art brushes to skeletal strokes -- a truly cool feature. Expression also imports Illustrator swatch palettes and can take advantage of any Photoshop plug-ins you might have. Expression files can be exported to a variety of PostScript formats -- PDF, Illustrator, and EPS -- and popular bitmap formats -- TIFF, JPEG, and so on. Web page designers will find the Flash palette and export capabilities useful for creating simple animations and hyperlinks. Exprssion also supports Microsoft's IME editor to input foreign languages such as Japanese.
Be aware though that some of Expression's amazing effects don't translate well to older technologies such as the Windows Clipboard and PostScript. In some cases, the effects disappear or are converted only semi-successfully to other vector formats. If you need to export Expression files, rasterizing to bitmaps results in a far more accurate rendering.
We also wistfully wish for a convenient node-editing palette like that in CorelDraw. Live blends that can be regenerated on the fly by moving the starting and ending objects would be nice too. Despite these minor flaws, our best advice is to just buy this program. It's an indispensable addition to any graphic design toolkit.
Read more by Susan Glinert.