In 1953, or so the story goes, the painter Morris Louis -- who had always been a loser -- suddenly, surprisingly became a modern master. no one was prepared for the glorious color paintings that poured out of his studio here in the last years of his life.

He had been for 20 years an unknown provincial; suddenly he was a genius. Because the public loves a miracle, the flaring of his greatness has long been regarded as the product of some near-magical spontaneous combustion. Now, for the first time, a Louis exhibition shows us how much he struggled before he took his leap.

"The Drawings of Morris Louis," Diane Upright's show which goes on view today at the National Collection of Fine Art, is an important exhibition -- but beautiful it's not.

In most of the drawings, the artist is awkwardly and painfully learning from his betters, from Miro and Picasso, Gorky and Matisse. They look more like heartfelt doodles than major works of art. Had they not preceded his mature color paintings -- his "Veils" and his "Florals," his "Stripes" and his "Unfurleds" -- these drawings would appear today only as small and curious footnotes in the history of art.

The drawings on display here outline his apprenticeship in the '40s and '50s. They are repetitious, introspective, exploratory, personal. What is most surprising is that most of them are funny. Louis, in his photographs, always seems a sad sack.

In his late poured-color paintings, Louis carried abstract art beyond the shadowed anguish of New York action painting. These drawings help us understand how hard he had to work, how much he had to learn, to set his talent free.

None of it came easy. As an art student in Baltimore, Louis had "decided absolutely and desperately" that he "wanted the whole thing." But he seemed to have small gifts. His drawing was clumsy; he couldn't get it right. He had a "built-in handicap," a friend of his told Upright; "He couldn't realize, he couldn't make anything." Instead, he had to work. Rung by rung for 20 years, Morris Louis stuggled up the ladder that was being climbed by other artists of his time.

He took odd jobs. As the catalogue says: "peeling vegetables for an Italian restaurant, wrapping clothes in a laundry, gathering information for the Gallup Poll, and mowing grass in a cemetery (until blisters forced him to quit)." During the Depression, he painted murals in the public schools; made cloying, socially conscious paintings (Evicted," "Talk to Relief"), fell under the spell of Picasso and the Mexican muralists, and joined the WPA. More "gifted" men flew by him as he plodded on that path.

What he lacked in flash, he made up for in tenacity. "When he'd get interested in something," one school friend told Upright, "he'd practically wear it out." His intensity and patience are apparent in his drawings -- even when their subjects are whimsical and light.

When Louis draws an elephant, a wizard with a wand, or a sort of antelope gazing at the stars, he draws it not once but many times. As he does so, one can see him pushing its familiar outlines towards abstraction even as he trains himself in fluid, easy lines.

Other color painters would later lean on straightedges, compasses and masking tape. The hard-won fluidity that Morris Louis masters in these drawings seems a preparation for the liquid colors he would later pour.

One sees in these drawings, too, that it took him many years to accept what must have seemed the void of pure abstraction. Even as he freed his wrist by drawing, drawing, drawing, his birds and fish and images linger in his works, diminishing, dissolving, until at last they're gone.

It took him 20 years, but in 1953 when he gave up pen and ink and turned to color painting, he was, at last, prepared. He worked his way through many schools until he found himself making marks and squiggles and other free notations on a formal, ruled-in grid. "By 1953," writes Upright, "Louis' process of distillation yielded two apparently conflicting vocabularies: a cerebral geometric structure and a subjective, free-form imagery."

Armed with those vocabularies, the painter Morris Louis, an unknown in his 40s with less than decade to live, was finally able to paint his sure, free and hugely formal major works of art.

"The Drawings of Morris Louis," al most all of which are owned by the artist's widow, will travel to the Fogg at Harvard, where Diane Upright teaches, when it closes here on Feb. 3.