Expression 2
at a Glance

Maker: Creature House
Price: $149 boxed, $139 download, $99/$89 upgrade
Demo Available: Yes
URL: http://www.creature house.com

Overall Impression: This is definitely a thorough overhaul of the original program this is based on. It offers an interface that's easy to understand and use, and it has some good features for creating organic-looking effects, such as paint strokes.

Key Benefits: Pressure sensitivity is a big plus, but this program has a number of great features. Paint strokes are excellent, especially the ability to use bitmap images in paths. I like this program's numerous transform capabilities, and all the tools are extremely easy to use. Transparency controls and colorization are two more great features, as are vector warping and support for Photoshop filters.

Disappointments: This program's Flash output leaves something to be desired. It would have been nice as well if Expression 2 had included a larger library of bitmaps for painting. Finally, when you use a lot of strokes on a single page, Expression 2 slows down considerably.

Recommendation: Buy

REVIEW MARCH 28 , 2001
Creature House Expression 2

Vector illustration and painting software

by David Nagel
Executive Producer
[email protected]

Over the course of just the last couple years, vector-based illustration programs have begun making their first serious strides into the territory of bitmap painting tools. That is, programs have introduced vector tools that behave in many ways like bitmap tools but retain the editability of vectors. These include Macromedia Fireworks and Freehand, which retain most of the functionality of traditional vector (formerly known as EPS) applications, and Synthetik Studio Artist, which you would never identify as a vector tool unless you were to engage in some research to discover this fact. Right in the middle is Expression 2 from Creature House, an almost brand-spanking new application resurrected from the ashes of Fractal Design Expression from the company formerly known as MetaCreations. (Creature House is actually the company that developed Fractal Design Expression, selling it to MetaCreations. and then regaining the rights to market it late last year.)

What it does
Expression 2 is a dramatic overhaul of Fractal Design Expression, adding a whole host of new features I'll catalog for you shortly. For those of you entirely unfamiliar with any version of Expression, this is a program allows you to paint strokes with vectors—including support for pressure tablets—with a broad variety of stroke styles, from simple objects to strokes that look like wet paint strokes. It has full support for transparency, including gradations in strokes and fills. It has a broad variety of transforms. It allows for simple Flash animations. And it does all of this in a way that will not be a difficult transition to make for anyone with just a modicum of experience in Illustrator or Freehand or any other vector program.


The Expressions 2 Macintosh interface. Click image for a larger view.

In addition to all of these, you can import bitmap images created in other programs or in Expressions and use them either as objects within the composition or as stroke elements. In other words, you can paint bitmap images along a path.

Tools, text and functions
The two primary drawing tools in Expression 2 are the freehand pen and the Bezier pen. The options for these tools are almost too numerous to list here. Aside from width and an incredibly broad range of stroke and fill options, you can colorize grayscale bitmap strokes, apply slant, set maximum pressure (separate from the Preferences setting) adjust stroke and fill transparency, saturate/desaturate, darken/lighten, distort, change joints (round, bevel, miter, continuous or broken) and even adjust variable width. This last one is great for those who don't have a pressure tablet and want to vary the width of the stroke along the length of the path. For those with pressure tablets, this lets you edit the pressure you input over the course of your stroke. You can add points, move them and expand them for wider or more slender areas. (See Variable Width palette below.)


Tools and width settings

You have an equal amount of control over text, even before converting it to paths. You can stroke it with bitmaps and even adjust joints, widths, slant and any other stroke or fill aspect.


Text strokes with a 30 point bitmap stroke. Strokes over text can be adjusted as
easily as those on a path, including width, color, opacity, slant, joint sty;e. etc.
This text has not yet been converted to paths and is still fully editable.


Here the text is filled, and the fill has a solid transparency. The stroke has a
gradient transparency based on the alpha channel imported with
the bitmap. Again, the text remains fully editable.

Strokes, incidentally, are organized in their own palette, which can display all existing strokes or just list strokes by category (folder). Strokes can be defined and added to the palette with a simple menu selection.

Other significant tools and features include:

  • Warp, which using a grid to warp bitmap and vector data. You can import bitmaps into the program, place a grid over them and then stretch coordinates for warps within and without the objects' bounding boxes.
  • Onion skin, for showing previous and next documents for cell animation.
  • Support for Photoshop filters (on bitmap objects).
  • Paper textures for strokes and fills, whose resolution can be controlled independently.
  • Soft edges and embossed fills.
  • Masks with strokes and fills.

Import and Export
Expression 2 supports a number of file formats for importing and exporting, including the ability to export to Adobe Illustrator 8 format and EPS. It can also output Flash (SWF) files. The Flash export is probably unique in graphic design. I've certainly never seen anything like it. You don't actually animate an object in a timeline as you would in Macromedia Flash or Adobe LiveMotion (or any number of the other programs that export SWF). Rather, animation is handled on an object by object basis. The program allows you to pick an object and then set that object's normal, over and click states from a series of pulldown menus.


Expression's Flash settings dialog. All Flash animation settings
are made here, and no timeline is involved.

You can choose between motion and color settings, cycle type, cycle time and duration of the effect. There are no interactive features other than hyperlinks. Motion effects include pulsate, horizontal pulsate, vertical pulsate, rock, X vibrate, Y vibrate, rotate, enlarge and shrink. Color effects include fade, blink, brighten and darken.

The Flash output itself is quite small. A large animation can be as little as 4 KB, which is actually smaller than most JPEG images. The price of this is quality. You lose all detail in bitmap strokes, and there's no way to change the settings to allow for larger file sizes for better images. Vectors, of course, come out just fine.

On the import side, you can insert any bitmap object, and you can also import Photoshop files with layer and alpha information intact. You can also import any vector object and copy and paste between applications that support Illustrator AICB (Adobe Illustrator on the Clipboard) format, although other illustration programs to not accept bitmap data included in Expression's strokes.

Performance and usability
I found working in Expression 2 to be quite easy, Icons are usually familiar and at least understandable, and there's popup text to tell you what each tool does. I only had to refer to the manual once, which was when I wanted to figure out how to add animation to the composition. That was easy enough to find in the online help (under the Help menu on the Mac), which is a duplicate of the printed documentation.

All of the tools in Expression 2 are likewise accessible and logically organized. Fully expanded, tools can take up quite a chunk of screen acreage, and you can't dock palettes within one another. (You can close up the ones you're not using.)

In terms of performance, this program cleverly draws a black and white representation of your stroke while it's being drawn, rendering it out only when you let go of the mouse. Nevertheless, performance does get bogged down (screen redraw lags) about the time you hit 20 paths with bitmap strokes under the default memory allocation of 48 MB. Increasing the memory partition improves performance proportionally. One nice performance feature, though, is that you can continue to work even as other potions of the screen continue to redraw.

The bottom line
Expression 2 is an excellent complement to an illustration system. If you currently use Illustrator or Freehand and want to add more creative possibilities to your work, Expression 2 is definitely worth a look. While this program has Flash capabilities, it is not a full-featured Flash animation tool by any means. But it does offer some very nice vector capabilities that no other program can match. We give Expression 2 a buy recommendation.

Expression 2 is available for Macintosh and Windows for $149 for the boxed version, $139 for the download version. (During the introductory period, you can buy the download version and have the CD shipped to you at no additional cost.) Upgrades for owners of previous version of Expression run $99 for the boxed version, $89 for the download. For more information, visit http://www.creaturehouse.com.

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Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of the Creative Mac, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion and Synthetik Studio Artist WWUGs; and executive producer of Creative Mac, Digital Media Designer, Digital Pro Sound, Digital Webcast, Plug-in Central, Presentation Master, ProAudio.net and Video Systems sites. All are part of the Digital Media Net family of online industry hubs.
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