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Creature House Expression 3

Vector painting and illustration suite By Dave

Nagel Creature House Expression first caught my attention about two years ago. It promised something fairly dramatic: a combination of vector illustration and raster paint features integrated seamlessly into one application. Sounds good. But how well does this concept hold up in practical terms? With the new version 3.0, surprisingly well. I've reviewed two previous incarnations of Expression, and, while I liked some of what these versions had to offer, I could never have recommended them whole-heartedly as serious production tools, most notably because performance was seriously disappointing. Version 3, however, changes this. Not only is performance improved drastically in the latest release, but the program just feels "tighter"--cleaner, more functional, streamlined, better integrated. I think those looking for a tool that can combine the vector functionality of programs like Adobe Illustrator and Macromedia Freehand with the painterly feel of raster imaging applications will be quite pleased with Creature House Expression 3.

What it does Expression is, at its core, a vector illustration tool, with all of the functionality you'd expect from such an application. It includes precision path creation and editing tools (Bezier, B-Spline and Polyline), full text manipulation (including text on a path) and freehand path creation and editing tools.

But then it also includes a decent variety of raster imaging tools, including the same kinds of paintbrushes and pencils that you'd find in any bitmap image editing program. Import a digital photo, for example, and you can paint directly on it, including the ability to erase and even apply freehand masks to the image. And it also includes a wealth of miscellaneous tools, such as mesh warps, Flash button creation, path operations (such as intersections) and even the ability to trace a bitmap image automatically and convert it into vectors. (Below you'll see an example of a vectorized photograph.)

And these are all terrific features. But for me, the real selling point is a feature called skeletal strokes. Skeletal strokes allow you, essentially, to use a bitmap or vector image or animation as a stroke. These strokes are laid on top of paths, so, when you alter a path, the stroke images are altered along with them. Now, this isn't unique in and of itself. A variety of vector illustration tools, such as Adobe Illustrator and Macromedia Fireworks, allow you to overlay textures and custom shapes over a path. But what is unique is the way expression handles these image "overlays" (for lack of a better term). Rather than simply repeating a fixed bitmap image, the program twists and stretches it along the path is it would in a raster-based drawing program, but with the advantage of the editability of vectors. Here, for example, is a path with the "White Rope" stroke applied, which I then modified using the Node tool to stretch it around into different shapes.

I can also take those same paths and apply a different stroke to each one simply by selected a stroke from the preset library.

Creature House Expression 3 Vector painting and

illustration suite And I can apply these same skeletal strokes to any object, including text--even text that hasn't been
converted to outlines. The example below shows an A in Times Bold with a dry natural media stroke applied to it.

Since the text is live, I can easily edit it or simply choose a different typeface without reapplying my stroke settings. (But don't mess around with double-byte fonts in Expression 3, or you'll be in spinning lollipop hell for a long, long time.) Similarly, I can also continue to edit the strokes on my text using all of the standard stroke controls, like joint breaking, various joint modes, slew and the like. Below you see four variations on the same letter A using the exact same stroke but with different options selected.

And, as with regular strokes, I can control my text strokes' opacity, color, thickness, fill and the like through an extensive, yet intuitive, selection of palettes.

And if I scale or otherwise distort or transform the text itself, the stroke can be scaled or distorted right along with it.

Strokes are organized in their own palette, and I can easily add to the choices by placing (or creating) a vector or bitmap image and then simply defining it as a brush. Below, for example, I created a brush tip in Adobe Photoshop and converted it into a brush in Expression through a simple, two-step operation.

Creature House Expression 3 Vector painting and

illustration suite Strokes aren't just about image overlays though. They can also have artificial textures applied to them
(such as canvas, burlap, etc.), and the strokes can be converted to simple lines or gradients with the click of a button. The same goes for fills. You can apply simple solids, gradients, patterns and images as fills and also apply textures to them. Expression 3 also has a unique feature that allows you to apply "fringe edges" to your fills to soften their effect, as in the example below, which uses a 70-point fringe with the "rough diffuse" edge preset.

I should note that fringe edges are purely optional. FIlls can also be used in Expression 3 the same ways you use them in other applications. Fills can also be transformed independent of strokes, and both fills and strokes can be applied using a variety of blending modes, including Normal, Multiply, Light, Difference, Brighten, Darken, Color Dodge, Color Burn and even Eraser, which causes the stroke or fill to erase underlying strokes and fills. I can't cover everything this program can do, so I'll briefly touch on some of the rest of the new and major features here.

New reflection mapping; Support for .psd and .png file formats for import and export; A huge number of user-definable shortcuts (see below); New "clinging" palettes that follow one another when rearranged; ColorSync workflow support; Support for RGB, CMYK, HSL and custom colors, including the ability to import colors from Illustrator documents; New and improved tools, including Twirl Star and rounded rectangle; Improved text, including support for baseline shifts and tracking; Independent control of width and opacity parameters; Repeatable bitmap strokes.

Expression 3 provides user-definable shortcuts for every menu-accessible action.

Reflection mapping applied to an object created with the new Twirl Star tool.

The Font palette showing new text options.

Creature House Expression 3 Vector painting and

illustration suite Disappointments
Most of the features in Expression 3 are simply rock-solid, intuitive and incredibly powerful, with one exception: animation. As with previous releases of Expression, the program does have the ability to create Flash buttons and various types of Flash animations. But the process is not intuitive at all, and creating Flash animations and buttons is far simpler in other programs available on the market. (On a more positive note, Creature House is currently developing a separate, dedicated animation system called LivingCels built around technologies found in Expression 3, so we will finally be able to see the power of Expression put into motion.) My other disappointment is also a relatively minor one. It just strikes me as a bit ironic that the bitmap painting tools in Expression 3 are less robust than the vector tools. In a future release, I'd like to see a bit more flexibility with the bitmap paint tools, particularly the ability to use a wider array of tip shapes and dynamics.