Once more with Expression 3

A long time ago, a clever little company (Fractal Design) lived happily in the woods creating nifty graphics applications (Painter and Expression). They had a natural talent with creating software that expertly mimicked the attributes and qualities of real crayons, paints and other natural media. Everyone liked their work and everyone was happy.

Then one day they woke up and decided to sell up. Corel ended up with their flagship – Painter.

But what ever happened to that cool vector program they had — ‘Expression’? I remember thinking it looked quite promising and I really must check it out.

Well, after poking around the backrooms of the Microsoft site, I found her again — alone, virtually abondoned and waiting for someone to love her.

Microsoft refuse to talk about her, and, sadly it’s looking more and more like she’ll stay there.

Anyway, if you haven’t checked her out, and you feel like your designs could use a fresh angle, this could be the answer.

At it’s core, ‘Expression’ is a vector program, like Illustrator and Freehand, and it can import and export AI format documents (within reason).

That’s pretty much where the similarities end though. The vector linework in Expression works as a skeleton to ‘hang’ natural media strokes on. Although this is technically possible with Illustrator (via the ‘image hose tool’), it represents the central method of working in Expression. You don’t tend to fill shapes — you literally color them in.

It would be fair to say it isn’t an easy app to get started with. Certainly don’t jump into Expression thinking you’ll deliver a shiny new design 30 minutes later (unless you’re at home with Painter). This is a very non-standard interface. It’s not a bad one, but you’ll definitely need to invest some play time to come to terms with it.

It is, however, quite liberating to use after a long time with Photoshop and Illustrator, particularly if you have a tablet. The variable thickness and density a pen delivers is quite impressive.

I must admit the pen tool uses a very strange method to form it’s curves. You need to construct a ‘straight-edged fence’ around your shape, and the line curves inside your fence. A little hard to explain, but more intuitive than I might have thought at first.

All in all, although Expressions is a bit left-field, and certainly starting to show it’s age, it can likely add another punch to your design arsenal — if you make it through the learning curve. It’s found a spot in my toolkit now.

Of course, best of all is the fact that Expressions is free to a good home. All you need is a Microsoft Passport login and some reasonable bandwidth (I think it’s approx. 55MB).

If you haven’t seen it before, check it out when you have some play time.

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  • cob

    I just tired it out… very cool little app.

    Thanks for the heads up.

  • tim

    Are you saying that you tried so hard, you tired it out?! Truly thoughtless…

  • sullijo

    Cool; I’m been curious about vector graphics for a while, but can’t plunk down the cash for Illustrator et al. Nice program for a “vector test drive.”

  • cob

    Tim, aren’t you clever…

  • Ken

    Tim, if only we could all be as smart and thoughtful as you.

  • chilij

    How does it compare to Inkscape? Which one would be the wiser investment for learning time?

  • mike gilmore

    Microsoft just announced a new beta version release of Expression (codenamed Acrylic), available at the link above.

  • tcs

    they screwed it all up!

  • palsta

    > How does it compare to Inkscape? Which one would be the wiser investment for learning time?

    If you want fancy drawing capabilities, choose Expression. If you want a balanced featureset for all kinds of vector graphics and the standard SVG format, choose Inkscape.

  • Jeff

    A prime example of a corporate identity fixing something that just wasn’t broke in the first place! Your blog is a real resource Tim. Keep up the good work!

    :oD