A setting filtered through clouds sunbursts into smudges of yellow, pink, red and orange. Turquoise and sea-green create a surreal land and seascape.

"One Day" and "Sofala Bay," by Dennis O'Neil of Alexandria, are on exhibit in the Phillips Collection show, "Recent American Monotypes."

Monotypes are images painted on a smooth surface (glass, plastic, copper, zinc or lithographic stone) with oils or watercolors. This is then transferred to paper with a printing press or even a spoon or spatula. Subsequent prints, called "ghosts," are paler and more abstract. There is a sense of spontaneity to the works because the impression must be made before the paint dries - just a few minutes if the artist happens to be using watercolor.

"The monotype is a painterly medium," says assistant curator Kevin Grogan of the one-of-a-kind prints. "Artists can transfer their ideas to printing without having to master the difficult hand-eye coordination required for an etching."

The medium was popular through the 19th century, Degas being one of the best-known exponents. But it could not be precisely classified as a medium and the monotype suffered, according to exhibition organizer Jane Farmer. It was not considered a "serious" art form through the years for the same reasons it appeals to artists today: it lacks formal structure and is open to mixed-media.

Judging from the 74 pieces in this show the monotype is versatile enough to be all things to all artists.

And it's not entirely predictable. Grogan calls it a magic 25 percent range from what the artist intended and what the print actually looks like. Depending on the paint and paper used, the original image can be distorted. A straight line, for example, can spread into a dramatic stroke.

There is a definite watercolor feel to Roselyn Law Ablow's delicately hued "Blue Forest," which contrasts with the stark symbolism of Robert Martin Ash's "Imprenta La Pagina no. 31."

Michael Mazur's monotype and three ghosts of two runners headed in opposite directions seems to be a photographic play of negatives and positives. The final impression in his series, "His Running, My Running" is like a subtly muted charcoal.

RECENT AMERICAN MONOTYPES - Through July 15 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. Tuesday through Saturday, 10 to 5; Sunday, 2 to 7. CAPTION: Picture, WAYNE THIEBAUD'S MONOTYPE, "HIGHWAY CURVE WITH TRAFFIC II," AT THE PHILLIPS. By Vanessa R. Barnes