Though the new gallery season gets off to a noisy start today with nine shows opening simultaneously on the Seventh Street strip, one of the best shows in town -- and the first sleeper of the year -- has turned up, but in the back room, at Gallery K, 2032 P St. NW.

There, behind a humdrum group exhibition, is the first mini-solo show of watercolors by Alan Weatherley -- a British-born Washington artist who supports himself by making frames. If there's any justice, recognition of Weatherley's ample talents should soon permit him to use his time more creatively.

He is not altogether unknown. Last September, he made a striking debut with a single watercolor self-portrait selected for the Corcoran's 22nd Area Exhibition. Here, Weatherley continues to make self-portraits exclusively, all meticulously rendered in watercolor and deeply concerned with making both emotional and eye contact with the viewer. In these sometimes two- and three-part narratives, the artist persistently examines his own life, always playing two roles: subject matter and observer. He often observes himself at work in his studio, surrounded by miniature paintings of his paintings, the Chagallesque figure of his wife floating supportively in the background, laurel wreath in hand. These intriguing puzzles of pictures abound with half-buried allusions to classical art and literature.

Weatherley also uses magical elements that sometimes border on the surreal. In "Unknown Man Clasping a Hand Issuing From a Cloud," for example, a hand reaches from behind abstract clouds with a reassuring gesture to the artist. The same hand reappears throughout Weatherley's work, and, in "Work in Progress," actually seems to be tickling the artist's face as it paints his portrait. Is this a hand of the supernatural or is this the alter-ego of the artist? This question adds to the highly provocative nature of the work, and Weatherley's ability to conjure within such a broad span, from the witty to the fearsome high-drama of "Mask Fragment," suggests an artist of unusual depth and range. The show closes Oct. 3.

The Popularity of Prints

As long as there have been artists, there has been art about art. Now print collectors -- perhaps among the most passionate of collectors -- are getting a treat in the form of a well-researched and thoroughly delightful show entitled "Prints About Prints," just opened at Hom Gallery, 2103 O St. NW.

The works were collected over the years by Martin Gordon, a New York dealer who sells and publishes prints, as well as books about prints. The show includes 70 graphic images, starting with a theatrical portrait of an 18th-century French printmaker by a Dutch contemporary, and ending with a bizarre image by contemporary French etcher, Philippe Mohlitz, that depicts an artist's cadaver chained to a printing press in what appears to be a torture chamber. There, three eerie figures swathed in white examine the new prints and seem oblivious to the artist's plight, clearly Mohlitz's commentary on the relationship between artist and patron.

That relationship was considerably healthier, however, in turn-of-the-century France, from which has come more than half of the works here. Prints were extremely popular then and representations of collectors leafing through portfolios, staring into the windows of print galleries were produced by many artists, known and unknown, from Toulouse Lautrec and Manuel Robbe to poster artist Fernand-Louis Gottlob. Original lithographs were also often made as posters to advertise prints, print galleries and exhibitions, and many of the most striking images in the show are of that ilk. The romance of la vie bohe me and the heroic dimension of the artist in his studio is a subject that took on a special aura for many early 20th-century American printmakers, such as Peggy Bacon, Dwight C. Sturges, Ellison Hoover, Childe Hassam and many unknown arists worth learning more about. None of the works in the show is for sale, but Jem Hom is willing to seek out duplicates for interested clients. A fully illustrated paperback ($10) accompanies the show, and reveals for example, that the noble figure of a printer at his press etched by Lawrence Kupferman, actually depicts a lowly apprentice hard at work printing Harvard diplomas. The show continues through Oct. 12.

Mountainscapes

Touchstone Gallery, 2130 P St. NW, has opened a show featuring two artists who have used the earth both literally and as subject matter. In his ink paintings on rice paper, China-born Kit-Keung Kan recombines Oriental sources and techniques to produce mountainscapes that have been simplified into compositions of pyramidal forms surrounded by billowing clouds, all seen from an odd, bird's-eye angle. Ceramic artist Judy Todd has picked up the earthy theme quite literally in her simple and beautiful new pit-fired forms, whose drama comes from the play of smoke on the clay surface during a long, smoldering fire in the earth. The resulting grays and blacks have captured the shadowy clouds of smoke which almost seem to levitate and shimmer on the surface. The show closes today.