Just about every vector illustration package these days features ‘real-media’ art effects, and various stretched and repeated picture brushes. This leaves Expression, originally launched in 1996 under the Fractal Design brand, somewhat far from being the unique program it once was. But Hong Kong-based Creature House has come up with a versatile and powerful upgrade to 2001’s version 2.
If you’ve ever dabbled with Adobe Illustrator’s art brushes, you will have an inkling of what Expression is all about: complex stroke effects are applied to simple vector paths to create a paintbrush effect. Creature House calls this approach ‘skeletal strokes’. Yet the Expression advantage is that the results look considerably more realistic, challenging even Corel Painter in this respect. Unlike Painter, though, every skeletal stroke can be re-edited afterwards (re-coloured, re-textured, moved, resized, rotated, reshaped, and so on), which is ideal when you have a fussy client. It means you can draw first and choose an output resolution afterwards. Built-in onion skinning and tweening lets you prepare sequential transformations for export to Flash SWF animation.
Several new tools debut in this version, most notably a three-in-one Star-Polygon-Twirl tool. Click and drag to create the basic shape in the normal way, then hold down the Ctrl (Windows) or Command (Mac) key, and drag around the object to twirl its edges. We also liked the Eraser mode. This is one of Expression’s blend modes, alongside Multiply, Burn, Dodge, and so on. Using Eraser, you can roughen, feather or otherwise texturize a vector object’s edge by drawing a skeletal stroke over it, causing the brush to paint away whatever is underneath.
Customization of strokes and fills alike has been boosted considerably. While beginners will be happy to play with the presets, advanced Expression users can now experiment with definable brush-effect fringes and independently controllable transparency variance and width along a stroke for more random and organic results. Bitmap and pattern fills can be moved around inside their container objects. You can even freeze any layer so that a flat alpha channel bitmap is displayed in place of the skeletal strokes, vastly improving on-screen performance as you work.
The upgrade brings up to date the export formats. Although these are limited, you can now at least exchange artwork with Adobe Illustrator 9 and even save to PDF with certain transparency support.
But the real star remains the final rendering to bitmap formats at virtually any size and resolution: Expression 3 doesn’t rush this task, and the result is always well worth the wait.
It’s fair to say that Expression 3 isn’t a simple program to learn (the supplied tutorials are woefully basic) but it definitely grows on you. After a while, the initially bewildering interface begins to feel friendly and responsive, not to mention fast – something we have never felt about Painter, for example. Expression 3 leaves everything else in its wake, except perhaps for movie and video artwork where Satori products reign supreme. Creature House has done a nice job of Windows XP compatibility and the Mac OS X edition too, a dual-format edition of the software is available at extra cost.