If you thought digital painting was purely the preserve of dodgy fantasy art involving clichéd depictions of elves and dragons, think again. A wave of artists is harnessing technological improvements and frankly ridiculous levels of talent to transform the medium, creating works that combine the richness and human feel of painting with a slickness that could only be digital. 

It’s easy to see the appeal: “I like the flexibility,” explains Sam Gilbey. “I can decide in a moment if I want to try a different technique, and if it works, great, but if it doesn’t, I can go back to where I was without having to redo my artwork from scratch.” He adds that digital painting is mess-free.

However, digital painting has long been a niche technique. The fact that Photoshop – the key package of most creatives – had only basic tools meant that many simply never got around to experimenting with it, while the clumsy efforts that crowd many fantasy art sites did nothing to aid digital painting’s reputation.

All that is set to change. Over the years, painting packages such as ArtRage and Corel Painter have developed into powerful tools and attracted a dedicated following.

Painter in particular offers incredibly sophisticated naturalistic painting tools and features such as pressure sensitivity, which allows creatives to use the styli of graphics tablets as though they were paintbrushes. Many traditional painters have crossed the fence to digital, lured by the increasing responsiveness of graphics tools. 

Now, the new Photoshop CS5 boasts vastly improved painting capabilities, while the iPad is touted as a portable, tactile canvas, with a raft of high-end painting apps available. Prepare yourself for an explosion of work in the next couple of years as more digital artists start experimenting. 

Digital painting is uniquely demanding, requiring advanced drawing, composition and colouring – essentially fine-art skills – as well as the technical savvy to get the effects right. Get it wrong and it can be really dire; get it right and it’s totally sublime. We spoke to five artists who lead the field today – with not an elf or a dragon in sight.