Expression 2

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Five years since its last release the vector brush-based art program is back - with a bang.

By their nature vector drawing programs produce work that can seem clinical compared to their bitmap painting counterparts. Five years ago though Fractal Design Expression broke the mould. With its revolutionary brush technology Expression produced drawings that for the first time could seriously be called art. The program won plenty of fans and awards but when Fractal Design was taken over the new company, Metacreations, chose to concentrate on its bitmap-based art application Painter. Eventually most users assumed that Expression was dead. However with the recent breakup of Metacreations the application has returned to its first developer, CreatureHouse, which has now brought out Expression 2. So has it been worth the wait?

Expression's brush technology can create artistic effects with a few strokes.

Creature House is clearly determined to reclaim the program as its own and has completely redesigned the interface. Expression 1 sported a typical drawing environment with toolbox and multiple tabbed palettes. Now these have all been combined as panels in a single docker window. To maximize or minimize the panels you double click on their title bar, or you can tear them off to become floating palettes. This streamlining is a big advance but other changes are more questionable. Line width for example is now controlled by dragging on numeric gauges and there are no scroll bars or right-button context menus. Overall the interface is idiosyncratic but generally productive when you've got used to it.

So what about Expression's drawing power? The toolbox offers access to basic rectangle, oval, line and text tools along with rotation, scaling, skewing and perspective tools, while the menus give access to control over grouping, alignment, distribution, stacking and basic path operations. Nothing to write home about here. The one area that makes Expression completely different is its brush tool. This offers three distinct modes with the first offering just what you'd expect from a drawing program with uniform line width and colour, while the second lets you draw with fully customizable gradients.

It's the third "skeletal stroke" mode that is the secret of Expression's success. Effectively this lets you draw with a picture or pictures, dragging out the vector shape or shapes along the length of the path. An obvious use is for creating picture borders with Expression's Strokes panel offering a range of repeating strokes such as footprints and chains for just this purpose. The technology is useful for much more than just an occasional eye-catching effect however. With its selection of pen strokes, for example, you can create a drawing that looks like a true work of impressionistic art with just a few strokes.

Expression offers a range of object-based and artistic brushes.

Of course you can do the same with a bitmap program like Painter but this is where the vector nature of the Expression approach really comes into its own - everything about your drawing remains completely editable. Select a stroke with the Select tool and you can immediately reposition or resize it, or choose another brush effect in the Strokes panel to produce an entirely different look. Select it with the Node tool and you can edit the shape of the brush path. The level of control leaves bitmap applications gasping.

Expression 1 established the concept and the major benefits of vector brushes, but of course in the last few years other packages have picked up on the idea. Expression 2 though shows the advantages of a completely dedicated approach. With its Attributes panel, for example, you can swap between three core drawing modes, manage the shear of the stroke, set how corners should be handled and even set up repeating patterns on the fly. There's still a danger that strokes will appear too regular, which is where Expression's support for pressure-sensitive tablets is crucial. Using the new Width Profile panel you can also control the width of the stroke across its length either interactively or through presets.

All strokes are fully editable.

Once you're happy with the size and shape of your stroked object there's plenty of control over its appearance. The main Paint Style panel is used for managing fills with a choice of solid, gradient and pattern effects and you can always quickly create your own pattern. Expression 2 also offers an embossing effect for fills, complete with interactive control over lighting source, and a very attractive soft edge effect which makes it seem as if the fill is breaking out of its outline - again ideal for producing a more human, more artistic feel to your work.

You can also use the Paint Style panel for re-colouring your stroke. Of course a picture-based stroke will often include more than one colour so, by default, replacement tints are applied based on the original colours' gray levels. If you want to retain a mix of different hues you can instead use the dedicated Colourize panel which lets you quickly shift brightness and saturation or set up complex spectrum mapping. Fill and stroke opacity can also now be controlled independently, and you can also apply overall paper textures and blend modes. Put it all together and you can change the look and feel of your artwork in seconds.

There are a wide range of formatting possibilities.

Expression's brushes are its huge strength but there's one serious disappointment - the program only provides around 250 and many of these, such as the prop brushes, are unlikely to see serious use. Fortunately it's very easy to create your own. Simply drag over a path or path with the Stroke Definition tool and they appear in a new window for fine-tuning. Save the brush to your desired stroke category and it's immediately available. It really is simple to create new brushes on the fly, ideal for example for creating pressure-sensitive text-on-path effects where the text seems to have been squeezed onto your drawing like toothpaste. Existing strokes can also be nested so that, for example, you can have leaf strokes nested within a tree brush. Best of all, thanks to Expression 2's rewritten rendering engine, even complex brushes remain extremely responsive.

Generally your new stroke will work as intended from the word go, but for special effects you might want to customize the effect. For example if you are creating a train brush you can anchor the engine and back carriage so that these won't be stretched no matter how long your stroke is. Also you can set up repeating elements so that extra carriages are added as the stroke lengthens. You can also set up multi-view brushes and Expression will automatically interpolate a blended variation so that no two strokes need look the same - perfect if you are creating an artistic grass or forest effect for example.

Elements of a brush can be anchored or set to repeat.

Expression's skeletal stroke approach overcomes many of the creative limitations of its vector architecture, but vectors will never completely replace bitmaps. As such the biggest advance in Expression 2 is its new bitmap support. You can now import images in over fifteen bitmap file formats and, once placed, you can apply any Photoshop filter that you have available on your system. You can even paint directly onto your image with the Bitmap Pen tool. This is pretty limited but means that Expression is one of the few drawing programs able to claim in-built pixel editing.

Rather more regularly useful will be Expression's warping capabilities. Whenever you select a bitmap, an overlying red grid automatically appears. Drag on any of the nodes of the grid and the bitmap immediately distorts accordingly. This is excellent for reshaping rectangular images to make them more eye-catching and is also ideal for creating caricatures. All told Expression's range of bitmap power is idiosyncratic but for the program's intended aim of producing unusual artistic images, it's spot on.

Bitmap support includes warping, filtering and even pixel editing.

Most impressive of all is the fact that you can quickly rasterize any area of your image and then convert the resulting bitmap to a stroke that you can use with the brush tool. This can produce some stunning one-off effects with imported photographs, but makes most sense with smaller images such as the range of provided water-colour strokes. Using these bitmap brushes it's easy to think that you are painting in a bitmap program especially as both width and opacity can be set to vary with pressure. As soon as you come to edit your image however you'll immediately appreciate just how much more control Expression provides.

Bitmaps can be created and used to produce naturalistic artistic brushes.

Once your work of art is finished you can print it and save it to Expression's own XPR format. If you've limited yourself to vector-only brushes and effects you can also export to EPS or to Adobe Illustrator 7's AI format. However if you want to be able to work with Expression's more advanced effects, such as bitmap strokes, paper textures and transparency, you're going to have to export to a bitmap format such as TIFF or Photoshop's multi-layered PSD. Of course the conversion to bitmap immediately loses all Expression's vector-based editability, but at least you keep the advantage of scalability as you can produce your output at any resolution.

These days print-oriented output is no longer enough and Expression has duly clambered on the Web bandwagon with support for Macromedia's Flash SWF format. At first sight this looks little more than a cosmetic exercise as bitmap brushes, for example, aren't rasterised but just come through as stroke outlines. Dig a little deeper though and you find some surprising power.

Hidden away under the Path Properties dialog of the Object List palette is a Flash Settings sub-dialog which lets you specify an object's URL and frame target. In addition the dialog offers a number of drop-downs that let you specify a range of motion and colour effects for normal, over and click image states. In other words you can automatically create Flash rollover buttons that rotate, enlarge, shrink, pulsate, fade, blink, brighten and so on!

Best of all, if you have used a multi-view brush, you can set the drop-down to "animation" and Expression will automatically create the necessary intermediate frames to create a smooth animation of your stroke object. Without a built-in preview getting the exact effect that you want is more work than it should be, but many effects would be almost impossible to create in Flash.

Expression's Flash support looks crude but can produce impressive effects.

Expression's Flash support is a welcome bonus, but ultimately the program stands or falls on its print-oriented artistic creativity. Nowadays there's competition from the likes of Illustrator, Corel Draw and Xara X and, if you're looking for an all-round drawing package with some artistic capability, then these would make a better choice. However if you really want your work to stand out from the crowd, Expression isn't only the original artistic drawing application - it's still the best. And this return release is a real bargain.

Features
4
Ease of Use
4
Value for Money
6
Overall
5

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

March 2001



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