ROBERT MALONEY, Wsahington's new King of Hearts had just broken up with his sweetheart. But artists and adversity are often a good combination. So the 27-year-old bachelor stared to draw valentines.

One of his valentines, a red heart with "Sweet" written across it (the Es are heart-shaped -- "I used to call her Sweetheart," he says) is dedicated to the lost love. Now, with 11,000 valentines for sale in 30 Washington shops, Maloney may have lost a girlfriend, but he has gained a career.

His designs -- naive yet sophisticated -- manage the anatomically difficult task of tickling the fancy while touching the heart. A little girl with a red hat and boots and a heart-decorated umbrella sits on a bus stop bench. The sign reads "Buss." Not long ago an elderly woman came into an Alexandria shop, saw the card and shrieked, "That's me, that's me. I've been waiting for the bus all my life and it never came." She bought 20 cards. On another favorite card there is a heart-shaped sign reading "Yield."

Maloney has a whole series of tragic Valentines -- metaphors of love's perilous path. One shows a toy boat about to hit an iceberg heart. And then there's the little girl pursued by an upsidedown heart that looks like a shark. The tender trap card shows a trail of hearts leading to a gift package under a propped-up box about to drop.

Everybody knows tragedy is easiest to do. Conversely, Maloney can be sentimental without being sticky. A lamp leans lovingly over a sofa where two heart pillows are cuddling -- Maloney used that one recently when two friends were married. In other cards, a chorus line of leggy hearts dances across a valentine-shaped stage, a tinman admires a heart-shaped apple, a small boy with a net pursues a valentine butterfly, a little girl blows heart-shaped soap bubbles and another reads thearts from a heart-shaped paper. All are drawn with wide, free black strokes on white with red harts. None have captions. The designs speak for themselves. "Any other message should be the sender's," Maloney says. Maloney was born in Washington and grew up in Silver Spring. "Nobody in my family was into art. So I sort of drew on the sly. But I did make cards for my mother and friends from the time I was a small boy," he says.

So far cards don't pay the rent. Maloney works as a salesman for a coffee company. He's worked at many jobs, most of them of the "hoisting that bale" variety. Once he ran a delivery service. While working for Progressive Color lithographers (who now do the color preparation to print his crds), he began to be intersted in graphics as a career.He backpacked around Europe and studied art nights at the Corcoran School with Bert Schmutzhart and others.

Last September, when Maloney was putting together a portfolio to market his art work, a friend, Jim Jenkins, suggested, "Hey, why don't you try Christmas cards?"

Though most retailers buy Christmas cards months earlier, "I said, 'Why not, I'll take a whack at it,'" Maloney says. "So I had some printed up, and Jim and I stayed up 24 hours a day hand-coloring them."

Maloney broke even on the Christmas cards -- if you don't count the hours of hand work.

In December, in the midst of breaking up with his girlfriend of five years, a really low ebb in his life, he drew 40designs for valentines, doing six a day. "I just had to do the Sweetheart card for her," he says. It wasn't easy, he remembers. But it is said, "Men have died and worms have eaten them, but not for love."

So he got himself together and took 20 sketches around to Washington stores, and 30 agreed to stock his cards. On the strength of those commissions, he had 11,000 cards printed.So far, they're selling like red hots at 80 cents each, according to Cathy Martens, stationery buyer for Garfinckel's, one of his earliest and biggest customers.

Currently, he's working four hours a day on holiday, birthday and friendship designs to market in May in New York at the big stationery buyers show. In his spare time he is working on a children's book.

Maloney is one of the newest hands on a long history of bilfoux .

Martens says Garfinckel's sells more valentines than any card except Christmas cards. "We start selling valentines in January. Mother's Day is a poor thire. And Father's Day sales are terrible, right in there with St. Patrick's Day."

The National Association of Greeting Card Publishers says its members see a return to sentimental valentines, away from the comic: couples strolling on beaches, pastoral scenes, soft-focus photographs, printing on acetate instead of paper, more embossing, some lacy effects.Several publishers are even making cards embellished with removable, wearable costume jewelry. Verses are longer, six or eight lines as opposed to the couplets.

Many, if not most valentines, according to Hallmark, are not sent to lovers. For Mom and Dad With Love. Thoughts of those/We love the best/Are all to often unexpressed./But still I hope/You'll know today/The loving words/I'd like to say/And understand/The wish this brings/For all life's best/And happiest things./Have a Very Happy Valentine's Day .

In the sweet tradition, Gordon Fraser, an English artist, draws those misty-looking girls who seem to come from gothic novels. Sunny O'Neil, the Victorian dried flowers lady, sells by mail reproductions of the Victorian angel and heart seals, for people who want to make their own valentines or decorate packages. ( $1 to $1.50 plus 20 cents postage per package, 7106 River Road, Bethesda, Md. 20034, phone 301/229-7746).

If comic valentines are out, clever ones are not. Recycled Paper Products has a great one in which a hippopotamus is standing on a cliff while another floats up to him with the help of a red heart balloon. Inside, the card reads: "Nothing can keep us apart. Be my valentine." (In fine print on the back of the card is the cryptic message: "Philistinia-1 tube kron's kite bite ointment.")

Another Recycled design shows a detailed floor plan of an apartment with a blond girl in bed under a red spread. Inside is the forthright legend: "If you'd like to be my valentine, you know where to find me." Shades of "If you want me, just whistle."

At the Thorntree on Connecticut Avenue, the cards are even more explicit. One counter even carries the sign, "Parental Discretion Advisable." Most of these cards feature nudes of one or the other sex.Among the non X-rated casrds, there are the graphically interesting ones by Papermoon -- a heart with a winged pig for instance.

A new genre recalls the penny dreadfuls. The current cards are just as mean, but more sophisticated. A number are dedicated to getting rid of your valentine. "Birds fly over the rainbow, why, then, of why don't you," reads one. "Exit" on the outside flips to "It's been grand knowing you," on the inside of a Fante card at Carol & Co, down the avenue.

A monkey picture says "You've a fab face" on a Silver Strokes card. Child Star Co. publishes a whole series with letters on the cover. SAP, for instance, turns to: "Such a Pig."

Saying it with graphics -- "I love you, I want you, I need you..." in the shape of a heart -- are the speciality of the cards at The Written Word.

And for the Peanuts vendors, Hallmark has Lucy. She considers who is the "greatest, the most magnificent, the most splendiferous person in the whole wide world. You'll be glad to know... You ran me a very close second." Hecht's has postersized valentines and small valentine books, both by American Greeting.

Valentine's Day, according to George Parker of Hallmark, started some 1,700 years ago as Lupercalia, a Roman fertility festival. The story goes that in 264 A.D a Roman priest called Valentinus was executed during Lupercalia. In 496 Pope Gelasius declared Feb. 14 St. Valentine's Day. The custom of exchanging valentines by drawing from a box perhaps comes from the Roman ritual. Maidens dropped their calling cards in an urn from which young men picked one at random. Thus coupled they were expected to be friends for the year.

In 16th-and 17th-century England, valentines were three-dimensional and expensive. Princess Mary (later Queen "Bloody" Mary) gave a gold and ruby broach to her valentine. The Duke of York was said to have given a jewel that cost 800 British pounds to his sweet mistress.

The first American valentine publisher was Esther Howland of Worcester, Mass., who, it is said, had the idea after receiving a valentine from England. In 1847, she began making and selling her handmade valentines -- some of them for $35. The valentines were delicate, made of bits and pieces of lace, silk, embossed paper, hand-colored. She organized a studio with a staff of young women to hand make the valentines. Alas, her work never brought her a valentine of her own and she died unmarried.

The 1880s was a happy time to be a lover, judging by cards in the collection of the National Greeting Card Association. A publisher called L. Prang & Co. was one of the earliest to mass produce valentines, though they were still elaborate by today's standards. These were the years when valentines were valentines, full of sweet sentiment, delicate hues, gracious Grecian fowns and langerous lyrics.

Cards were expensive and luxurious. Many of the L.Prang & Co. cards were fringed with silk. Some had very fancy three-dimensional effects like the one of a boy and girl in a flower arbor, backed with several layers of arched flowers.

Flowers bloom on most, along with classical allusions -- for instance the one where the Grecian maiden consorts with cupid in an apple tree.

Another, picturing a wholesome farm girl, carries the legend: To the Fairest./When Paris made his/Famed award./Two angry goddesses/Against him cried./My judgment puts/Them in accord./With this all three are/Justly saitisfied. . Cupids flew on many cards, often blindfolded, sometimes on flowering magic carpets.

Many cards were elaborate cutouts, with all sorts of embellishments. One piece of notepaper had garlands, clasped hands and blue ribbon attached to a scroll-edged paper.

At the turn of the century, not all was flowers, fruit and candy. There was a mean, obscene theme running through the cheap Penny Dreadfuls, printed on newsprint, in garish colors with rude drawings and unpleasant doggerel. These blots on the day of love persisted through the '30s. Anyone who survived those years remembers the hot waves of shame and tears of Valentine's Day at school. The cards were particularly awful because they always seemed to poke at your most embarassing problem. The sort of thing you hated most about yourself. The trait you hoped no one else noticed was sure to be the subject of your valentines.

Mary Lethbridge at the Library of Congress says the library has boxes and boxes of them. One reads: "CCAMERA NUT. All you live for is your camera! /You are really in a rut !/Gad! You shouldn't hang your pictures /You should hang yourself , you nut!" (Emphasis from the cards.)

Or, "WOLF. For years you've tried to 'Sell' Your 'Line '/But, all the/Gals Refuse It !/So why not Sell Your Sofa , Dope.../ You'll never live to use it ."

To help exorcise those dreadful days, you have to say quickly to yourself several times one of the greatest of all valentine verses -- Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How do I love thee, let me count the ways...."

Valentine's Day, with its ups and downs of sentiment and taste, has proved to be the most durable of festivals. Perhaps it is because it gives an excuse to people to say how they've been feeling all year. So this year, as in the 1,700 before, lovers, friends, relatives and even enemies, will exchange cards that touch the heart.