"Painting is trickery," says Richard Estes. The poor muse of photography -- confounded by his paintings -- no doubt would agree.

At every turn he tricks her. His paintings look like photographs only when they're photographed. His paintings look like paintings, and not at all like photographs, when hanging on the wall.

Estes, it is true, uses photographs as sketches. But he uses them to lie.

"All painting is a lie," he says, "a lie that makes the viewer believe he's seen the truth."

He is, at 43, a first-rate painter getting better. "Richard Estes: The Urban Landscape," opening tomorrow at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, is an extraordinary show.

Most so-called "photo-realists" merely reproduce projections. There are hordes of them about. Slaves to slides and cameras, impervious to boredom, most are efficient, well-paid hacks. Estes, as his show makes clear, is in another league.

He does not shock or preach.His brushwork is anonymous, his ego held in check. we do not think of Estes standing at his easel when we look into his paintings. Instead, his pictures work as mirrors, reflecting our own memories. When Estes paints an escalator he brings to mind a thousand sand others we have ridden. When he paints a littered curb, a fireplug, a window -- we feel that we have seen these things many times before.

Estes, quoting Whistler, says, "Nature imitates art," and his pictures prove it. Many paintings teach us how to look at painting.Those of Richard Estes tend to change the way we look at Real Life. by Richard Estes.

It is difficult these days to stroll through a city, say, on sunny Sunday mornings, without noticing the stillness, the ambiguous reflections, the plate glass and the chrome we remember from his art.

Most of us when seeing large storefronts made of glass look at the glass -- or through it. Estes censors neither the reflections on the glass, nor what we see through it. He shows us both at once. The details he paints with such admirable skill never overshelm the larger composition. Balance is the key to the beauty of his art.

He tries, he says, to make his paintings "equally interesting all over." Just as the many color stripes in a painting by Gene Davis are equally important, so, too, are the windows, the lampposts and the signs in a work by Richard Estes.

Though his paintings do not look like those of Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still or Jackson Pollock, Estes, in his own way, is a kind of field painter too. All-at-onceness is his subject. He balances his details one against the other until the balance dominates, opening a field, crystalline, non-hierarchical into which the viewer drifts.

His "plots" are open, too. Unlike, say, Norman Rockwell or Andrew Wyeth, both accomplished realists, he does not tell us stories. Unlike Edward Hopper, who also hymned the city, he does not stress poignance of big-city life.Though we may spend an hour studying his pictures, their stories do not change. We receive them all at once.

Though Estes is best known for his painting of reflections, he does not need his trademarks. No neon signs or storefronts deominate his stunning horizontal view of Greenwich Village. Finished just last week, it is the newest -- and the finest -- of the 30 works on view.

"You could go down and photograph that corner," Estes says, "but it wouldn't look like the painting" He has changed the rooftops of the buildings. He has moved the Empire State Building slightly to the left. He begins his paintings quickly, sketching freely on the canvas. But he completes them very slowly -- fine-tuning the light, moving details about, tinkering, adjusting, until the balance is just right.

Although he works from photographs -- he sometimes uses only three, sometimes many dozen -- he does not obey them blindly. Buildings that he finds on one New York street he may paint on another. He also is willing to move signs and cars and shadows. The photographs he takes himself (he makes his own color prints) free him from the streetscape that he sees before him. They allow him to deceive.

"The real difference between my paintings and those done by the abstract expressionists," he says, "has nothing to do with abstraction. They were committed to feeling, to expression, to the self. I'm not. Their pictures were romantic. They painted with the heart. I prefer to use my head."

He was born in Sheffield, in small-town Illinois. He pronouces it Illanoise. His ancestors were Belgians. Though none of them were artists, they must have looked at Flemish painting. "Maybe I received," he says, "something in my genes." His jacket is beige woven wool, his trousers are green velvet. He still looks like a country boy dressed up for the city. His manner is mild, unpretentious. If you passed him on the street you would not look at him twice.

"There were no paintings in my hometown. Until I moved to Chicago when I was 16 I never looked at art," he says. "The city thrilled me. I'd been drawing all my life, but I'd never thought of painting. My mother still has drawings that I did when I was 3. I was drawing streetscapes even then."

There are few people in his paintings, and those that do appear are shadowy and blurred. Most of us, on city strolls, concentrate on passersby. Before a work by Estes, the viewer feels alone. In the cities that he shows us the viewer is the only person of importance. "Richard Estes: The Urban Landscape" closes at the Hirshhorn on April 25.