PC-based illustration began in 1987 with the launch of Adobe Illustrator on the Mac. Rather than creating a bitmapped grid of coloured pixels, Illustrator employed Adobe’s PostScript page description language to create drawings from filled shapes and open paths defined by mathematical vectors. PostScript vector drawings are pin sharp, resolution independent, inherently scalable and offer both ongoing efficiency and retrospective editability. However, their huge weakness lies in being inherently defined via solid shapes and uniform-width lines: in short, they’re clearly artificial and computer generated.
But, vector drawing doesn’t have to be this way. On the PC, the early market leader CorelDRAW took a much freer approach by mixing in bitmap-based effects. However, the program that redefined vector-based drawing arrived on the PC in 1995. The first key to Xara Studio’s success was its amazing speed, up to ten times faster than CorelDRAW – and it’s still the fastest. What makes Xara’s output stand out, though, is the way it focuses on bitmaps: incorporating pixels into vector illustrations enables Xara to produce artwork that looks like a photograph or a work of art.
This richer creativity doesn’t just come from adding external bitmaps to vector compositions – Xara also employs internal bitmap handling to enable richer formatting. In particular, it uses bitmap fills to provide a dedicated gallery of seamless bitmap tiles that can be quickly applied to vector shapes. Using its hands-on Fill tool, you can interactively size, position, rotate and skew these bitmap fills and, thanks to Xara’s extraordinary speed, see all this happen in real-time. With Illustrator, you’re expected to indicate a wall using cross-hatching, while in Xara it looks like real bricks.
Even more powerful was Xara Studio’s pioneering transparency handling. With vector-based solid fills, varying the opacity isn’t an option – the illusion of transparency needs to be created intersection by intersection. Xara, by contrast, lets you instantly apply a flat transparency effect to an entire group of multicoloured objects, or just drag with the Transparency tool to create a graduated fade. Most impressive of all, Xara lets you specify a blend mode, which is essential if, for example, you want to create a realistic shadow interacting with the underlying objects.
With its bitmap-based images, textures, transparency and blend modes, Xara Studio opened up new areas of realism and artistic creativity, but, apart from built-in anti-aliasing, its lines were still uniform width and still clearly artificial. Expression, the program that introduced creative line formatting, came from the Hong Kong-based Creature House, but it wasn’t until 1996 when it was acquired by Fractal Design that it became famous. Like Fractal Design’s other flagship application, the bitmap-based Painter, Expression enabled artistic drawing on a computer but still within a vector environment.
The key to Expression’s success is its use of “skeletal coloured strokes”. PostScript handles lines by laying flat, uniform-width colours between vector-based control points, and for anything more expressive you’re forced to define the stroke itself as a shape. Creature House realised you could take an expressive, shape-based stroke and apply that along a vector-defined path. A wide range of predefined skeletal strokes mimicked various artistic media, such as calligraphic pens and paint brushes. Expression broke the tyranny of uniform lines and made it possible to create fluid, eye-catching and creative art.