Creature House Expression 3

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New tools, fills, stroke handling and innovative effect lines enhance Expression's existing art-based approach to vector drawing.

Most vector-based drawing packages offer huge control and editability but their end results tend to look clinical and computerized. Creature House's Expression is very different. As its name suggests, the program attempts to put the human expression back into vector drawing, helping users to create artwork that's worthy of the name.

Expression might be an unusual drawing program, but it is still built on the fundamental building blocks of lines and shapes. New tool options in this latest release include the ability to draw ellipses from the centre, to round the corners of rectangles and a new Star-Polygon-Twirl tool. You also have more control over your shapes with the ability to numerically size and position them. All welcome, but not exactly ground-breaking.

What makes Expression unique is the way that it handles the paths that define these lines and shapes. In most PostScript-friendly drawing programs these strokes might be solid or perhaps dotted and dashed, but that's about it. With Expression you can turn any object(s) into a brush and then drape this along the path (or "skeletal stroke" as Creature House terms the technology). It might not sound that revolutionary, but it takes Expression into completely new areas. In particular you can create truly artistic, pressure-sensitive brush strokes which, because they are vector-defined, remain fully editable. This means that you can retrospectively change the weight of your stroke, recolorize it, redraw it or simply change to a new brush type!

Exp3stroke.png: The secret behind Expression's artistic results is its skeletal stroke technology.

Skeletal strokes are central to Expression's success and, after version 2's major introduction of bitmap-based brushes, I was looking forward to what version 3 might come up with. To begin with, bitmap strokes have been brought more into line with their vector counterparts with the ability to set up head and tail anchoring and to control multi-part repeating body sections. If you had a scan of a caterpillar, for example, you could set it up so that, however long your stroke, it would still look realistic. The second new bitmap-based stroke feature is the ability to independently control the variability of transparency and width along the stroke. Both enhancements are welcome, but they aren't exactly killer.

More development effort has been put into improving the way that Expression handles its fills. In addition to the existing choices of flat Colour, Gradient and vector-based Pattern there's a new Bitmap option. Expression comes with a small range of tileable textures and you can interactively drag these into position and scale and rotate the effect with the new Transform Fill tool. You can also load your own images complete with alpha transparency which opens up a number of masking-based creative options.

Another major innovation in version 2 was the ability to control the edges of your fills - enter a positive value and the edge is given a soft feathering, enter a negative value and the edge is raised to produce an embossed and beveled effect. New in version 3 is the ability to choose from a range of Fringe Textures to roughen soft edges, and to choose from a range of Reflection Maps to make embossed fills look like they are made of liquid metal.

New features such as fringe textures and an eraser mode open up new artistic possibilities.

Of the two, the Fringe Textures will prove much more regularly useful as they work well to enhance the naturalistic art quality that is Expression's major strength. Even more useful in this regard is the new ability to use skeletal strokes to interactively roughen your artwork. This is achieved through a new Eraser mode that cuts through all underlying objects on the current layer. As well as roughening effects, the Eraser mode is ideal for producing the common cut-away art effect where you scratch away at a surface to reveal the colours beneath.

Expression 3's bitmap fills, pixel-based soft edges and bitmap-based skeletal strokes help produce more naturalistic artistic end results but they cause a problem as, unlike vectors, bitmaps aren't resolution-independent and scalable. Increasingly then, like Real-DRAW Pro (see page ), Expression should be seen as providing a vector-based environment for producing final bitmap-based output. As such, Expression 3's new ability to export PNG files with transparency and especially Photoshop PSD files with layers is the most likely output route. Having said this, if you stick to vector-only handling, Expression's support for the AICB clipboard format makes the program an excellent partner for Illustrator.

So far the improvements in Expression have been welcome, but slightly uninspiring. However Expression 3 still has one final trick up its sleeve - effect lines. You set these up by selecting two paths, calling up the new Effect Lines palette and then controlling how many lines to add between the two paths, their clustering, spacing, width and start and end edges. Creature House is pushing the feature for setting up Manga-style comic book action lines, but they are useful for much more than this. In particular the ability to replace the default straight lines with template paths and then to apply any skeletal stroke to your effect lines opens up enormous creative potential.

Effect lines show Expression's control and creativity working together.

Expression 3's effect lines show the advantage of a dedicated vector art package at its best. For maximum control you'd be better off with a standard drawing package such as Illustrator; while for maximum creativity you'd be better off with a bitmap-based package such as Painter. If you're looking for both control and creativity, Expression is out on its own - and at a very attractive price.

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

February 2003

requirements Pentium or higher, 64MB of RAM, 125MB of hard disk space, Windows 95, 98, NT4, Me, 2000 or XP


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