FOR MOST of Washington's aspiring artists, a one-person show in a gallery is the benchmark of success: the coveted chance to display their work in the cramped but hallowed rooms on P Street or Georgetown's M Street.

But after striving for years and finally getting the opportunity, many artists discover that they can barely afford to have a show -- and may actually lose money if they do.

A case in point: When Mary Jane Overall, 30, came here about a year ago after six years in Mexico, she knew no one. So, like some 3,000 other working artists in the Washington area, she began trudging from gallery to gallery with a portfolio full of photos and slides.

Overall was lucky. She walked into the spacious Washington World Gallery -- in a prime location at 30th and M -- in the heart of Georgetown. She showed them her work. They liked her; she liked them. The lighting was good and the gallery had high ceilings -- perfect for Overall, a printmaker who also weaves large house-like compositions. A show was arranged for December.

Then came the details.First, there was a showroom "charge" -- at $300 a room. The gallery gave her a deal: three rooms for the price of two, $600. She paid part in advance. Then she had to grame 20 of some 100 prints for the exhibit -- another $300.

The show went well, after a successful opening with wine and little platters of hors d'oeuvres and lots of guests and possible customers. In fact, it went so well that the gallery let it stay up an extra month at no fee to Overall. She sold about 13 prints.

When the show came down, Overall went to the gallery to pick up her earnings. She also picked up a bill for expenses, including $85 for the wine and $30 for the waiter who served it; $165 for the invitations that brought the guests to the opening; $150 to mail the invitations. Her grand total in expenses (including framing) was $1,330.

"I just wasn't aware it was going to be that costly," said Overall. The gallery told her about some of the expenses, she said, but some others were a surprise at the end of the show. "It was just numbers coming at me."

The gallery took the full showroom charge of $600 in lieu of their usual 40 percent commission which, due to Overall's light sales, would have been less than $600. And after her expenses, Overall -- whose prints ranged from $70 to $150 each -- made a profit of about $200 after eight weeks of showing. But that does not count framing: "With framing I didn't break even. And a lot of my prints had already been framed in Mexico." If she had had to frame more of the pictures in the show, she would have done even worse.

Overall speaks highly of the gallery: "They were very supportive. The purpose of going through a gallery is to get their connections. They brought dealers through to look at my work.

But you just get sort of overwhelmed. You sell something for $150, and you're getting a little more than half of that back."

It's a problem that thousands of Washington-area artists face as they compete for show space in fewer than 150 galleries.

Galleries in Washington generally take a 20-to-50 percent commission on sales during a show (and afterwards, if the gallery represents the artist). The most frequent figure is 40 percent. But, in addition, many owners insist that the artist pick up all or part of the costs. The Intuitiveye Gallery at 641 Indiana Ave. NW asks an artist having a one-person show to pay $600 up front, preferably several months in advance. Intuitiveye's Sam Tamashiro said that amount still does not always cover the costs of invitations, mailing and opening reception for the artist. It costs his gallery, which takes a 25 percent commission, $1,500 to have a show each month.

"for five weeks, I give the artist my prime space," said Tamashiro. "If the show doesn't sell, in the end the artist has his unsold pictures. I have nothing."

An artist can expect invitations to cost from $150 to $500, depending on whether color is used. Mailing can run another several hundred dollars, depending on whether you're sending invitations to 100 or over 1,000. (And in a business where publicity is essential, mailing lists can be that large. The Diane Brown Gallery has a mailing list of 1,200.) An opening reception can cost around $100 -- to serve only inexpensive white wine. Some gallery owners place ads for their shows in "Art in America," a national publication, at a price of several hundred dollars, depending on size.

Some galleries will split those costs with an artist, and some of the best known -- who generally carry the most respected but not always commercially successful artists -- will pay everything. But many artists pay for their own show framing, the item "you get killed on," as one artist puts it, although costs can vary.

"we have a policy," said Jose Antonio Font, owner of the Washington World Gallery, which is two and a half years old. "New artists have to absorb the direct costs of the show. We can provide the service of simply sending the invitation design to the printer and we put the stamp on the invitations and send them out. And we call the collectors." For established artists in his stable, the gallery picks up most costs. But for new ones, Washington World requires a minimum of $750 in sales per room at the gallery. If that amount is not sold, the artist pays the showroom charge of $300 per room instead of 40 percent commission, according to Meena Ahamed, associate director.

"I swore I wasn't going to show again," said artist Allen Appel, who made $1,200 on a show at a cooperative gallery two years ago -- but spent $800 in expenses. "It just cost too much."

And sometimes the galleries ask more than money. Five years ago, one Washington artist, scheduled for a gallery show, was asked to clean the gallery (including vacumming), fix the holes in the walls, and set up his work -- in addition to other expenses.

If you're an artist with a one-man show," said 42-year old printmaker John Sirica, "and you want your show to look damn good, it's going to cost. That's the game." Sirica had a show with the Franz Bader Gallery three or four years ago on which he estimates he spent between $1,000 to $1,500. "You're putting your best foot forward. There's more to being an artist than doing the work."

In sirica's case, Bader provided the wine for the opening reception at the gallery. But Sirica spent about $400 to send out 800 to 1,000 three-color invitations. That paid off. "You couldn't get in the place." he said."I sold quite a few things that night." Sirica also paid for his own framing at an average of $20 a print. He hung about 30 prints and sold half the show. "I broke even," he said. "All the expense were covered."

Even the alternatives to commercial galleries are costly. Allen Appel, 34, once belonged to Studio Gallery, a cooperative in which the artist-members help direct the gallery and also have shows. Coopertives generally take a lower commission than commercial galleries. Appel said Studio took 35 percent.

Appel said he paid membership dues of $175 to $200 a year when he joined and held a photo show there, two years ago. He paid for the framing himself ( $600) and split with the gallery the costs (about $30 on each side) of wine and cheese for his opening. He sent out $100 worth of postcard invitations, mailed at his own expense, to some 500 people. He sold 15 out of 30 photos on display. "That was the point at which I decided it wasn't worth it," said Appel. "I did really well. People were saying I was good. But I didn't make any money."

Depending upon the artist's talent, choice of gallery, or even plain luck, however, the results can be very different.

Two years ago, 33-year-old Andrea Whiting showed her color pencil drawings to Louie Andre, owner of Wolf Street Gallery in Georgetown and Alexandria, both of which he recently closed. Andre liked her work and proposed a show.

"I said to him, 'I'm a starving artist and i don't have any money,'" Whiting recalled. "He said, 'You don't need any money.' He paid for hanging the show. He matted and framed 30 of my drawings. I never paid a penny. He placed an ad in 'Art in America.' I designed the ad -- I'm a graphic artist -- and he paid me for that. I told him I would do it for free and he said 'Don't be silly.'"

Whiting said six of her drawings were sold during her show. Andre took a 40 percent commission. "So basically he didn't make a penny," said Whiting. "He told me even if I sold everything he wouldn't be able to pay his lights and rent."

Tom Dineen, 31, who draws 7-by-10-foot charcoal panels, has a record of very successful shows. His latest was at the Middendorf-Lane Gallery, which paid for everything -- the invitations, the ads (there were several in art periodicals, including "Art in America"), two separate openings. For the big offficial opening, owner Chris Middendorf served domestic wine. For the smaller opening, the night before, he served hard liquor. "That was for six or seven of his bigfwig clients," said Dineen. "They were attorneys starting their corporate collection."

Dineen paid about $1,500 to $2,000 toframe his work. He sold about $12,000 to $15,000 worth of art. "It's been a pretty successful show," said Dineen. "Middendorf will show some profit."

Actually, to break even, Chris Middendorf says he has to sell $20,000 worth of art a month. He estimated perhaps half of the shows he gives in his gallery will sell that much. For show expenses, "we pay for everything," Middendorf said."We also take a large commission -- 50 percent."

Middendorf represents young and unknown artists as well as some of the better established artists around -- Sam Gilliam, Leon Berkowitz, Robin Rose. "We make a profit on more established artists."

It can be a precarious business, and the terms are as varied as the artists and their dealers. "Of course, we don't make a profit," said Barbara Fendrick, owner of the Fendrick Gallery in Georgetown. "We never break even on the shows. The shows are a duty, a service to the public. People don't go into art as a profit-making venture -- if they're smart."

Fendrick shows such artists as Dan Brush, Rebecca Davenport, Joan Danziger. She keeps the three-story gallery open on the sales of prints, ceramics and works by nationally known artists such as Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell. For shows -- many of which are for out-of-town artists -- Fendrick pays for almost everything: shipping costs, all frames, wine at the openings, the dinner parties she often gives at her home for the artist the night of the opening. If the artist wants a color catalogue (about $3,000), Fendrick will split the cost. (Diane Brown of the Diane Brown Gallery also pays for everything except framing.)

Fendrick said she "pampered" her artists for 20 years, But now, due to rising costs, she asks that some pay for invitations. Some artists pay all their printing and postage and some pay none, "at my discretion," Fendrick said. Commissions range from 20 to 50 percent, depending on the artist. "We are very grateful to the artists," she said. "But some of them are getting very demanding. Not everyone needs color invitations."

Jim Cramer, a 33-year-old sociology professor at Georgetown University, opened his gallery on P Street last March because he "wanted to take foolish pleasure in selling work."

He pays for invitations and ads for his artists, and even takes into account the expense of their materials. Cramer takes 40 percent commission and "I have champagne at my openings and I pay for it. The opening party is one of the fun parts of the gallery business."

"This is a risk," said Washington World's Font, who says he lost $25,000 in 1977, his first year in business. "The beauty of the business is the long-term relationship between the dealer and the artist. But if we put up all the expenses, the artist will do nothing to help us."

Art might be much more affordable for all involved if there were more customers. "The great problem is trying to get people to come into town to look at art," Fendick said. "Until we capture that audience from Gaithersburg and Bethesda and McLean -- they do have the money -- things will be difficult."