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he current crop of illustration programs are complex, mature applications, able to produce incredible works of print and Web art. And because of their complexity and power, users have to pay close attention to nuances of transparency and symbol generation, animation and blends, enhanced tools and integrated workflow.
Somewhere along the way, technical aspects took precedence over the creative process. But here comes a new version of Expression, an intuitive program that puts back some of what has been missing from the illustration-program arena. Expression 3 combines aspects of Corel’s Painter, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe Photoshop, and can be an excellent complement to any of those applications. But it also restores a critical element to the mix: Expression 3 is fun.
Expression 3’s tools include a wealth of design features that any Web or graphic designer can use. But, like Painter, it will find its best and greatest 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 to 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 without requiring any rasterizing. 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 enhancements, although the program introduces some new tools and effects, too. New auto-clinging palettes help keep the desktop uncluttered. You can assign keyboard shortcuts to all menu items in the preferences, and you can “freeze” layers through enhanced controls. Freezing a layer does not lock it, but only rasterizes it temporarily, speeding up redraw and effectively locking out changes without making those changes permanent.
Except for specific layer-based opacity control, layers work in essentially the same manner as in Illustrator. If you export a file to Illustrator, all layers remain intact – even if locked or invisible.
Expression uses what its developers call skeletal strokes. Skeletal strokes are user-definable brush styles that can string vector or bitmap images along a path.
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 an animated image to a path.
You can resize, stretch, and transform each individual instance of an image defined as a skeletal stroke as it sits on its path. This version of Expression can also anchor images, making specific points or areas of the image unchangeable while leaving other parts open to transformation. A skeletal stroke of a hand, for instance, can be anchored so that only the arm stretches, leaving the hand unchanged.
As in the previous version of Expression, you can save files to a number of other bitmap or vector formats including GIF, TIFF, JPEG, Flash, Illustrator, EPS, and PDF. New to this version are Photoshop and PNG export options.
Expression doesn’t let too many complicated tool commands interfere in the creative process. You can change image strokes and fills from one style to another through simple selection tools, and the program’s printed tutorials will guide beginners and advanced users alike through the more complex features.
Expression 3 gives you fine control over each stroke through the Paint Style palette. With a slider control you can adjust the width and opacity of each stroke. With a tablet and stylus, you can define stroke edges to be hard or soft, thick or thin. You can even apply styles to type, while the text itself remains editable.
New to Expression 3 are fringes – vector-based edges that simulate water-blotting effects on paper. Fill opacities and textures have also been expanded in this latest version to include tiled bitmaps and something called “reflection-mapped embossed fills”, which create liquid metallic blobs and three-dimensional effects. A set of PSD and TIFF texture files installs with the program.
A new Eraser Mode lightens or enhances feathering effects on an object. For best effect, 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. You can further transform these lines by applying skeletal strokes and varying line spacing, length, and width.
This application will surprise you at every turn. The greater your expertise, the more you’ll discover. The one drawback is that the complexities of specific tools sometimes overshadow the effect you’re after.
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 is for you. Users of previous versions will welcome the enhancements to workflow and tool control. Expression 3 is an excellent addition to the professional artist’s toolbox, and a fun application just for sketching.