Fifteen five-year-olds curl up in front of Gene Davis' colorful "Junkie's Curtain," one of his famous vertical-stripe acrylics, at the Corcoran. What do they think?

"It makes your eyes go cuckoo."

"Yes, this was done by a man named Gene Davis," says instructor Helen Yamada. "How many lines do you see?"

Three kids raise their hands, quick with an answer.

"One, two, three, four . . ." Vincent begins in a high-pitched monotone chirp. Lots of lines.

"Have you ever seen a harp?"

"My grandma has a harp," one offers.

"What if you could take your finger and run it across?"

"You'd make music!"

And off they went in search of a painting with which to relax instead of vibrate. Howard Mehring's "Frontenac," a fluid-floral canvas of reds and blues, might make them feel quiet, Yamada suggested.

"A painting can make you quiet?" they asked, not quite awed, not quite disbelieving. Later, during this summer's workshop, they looked at Peter Max's "Statue of Liberty" series and, downstairs in the classroom, got to work transforming self-portrait drawings into happy and heavy pieces.

First happy: using brightly colored felt pens, paints and oil pastels that pop through the watercolors brushed on top, the kids splashed wild combinations onto paper, careful to choose a rainbow of Peter Max colors. Next, working on Xerox copies of their original drawings, they picked sad colors, and demons began to emerge.

Phoenix created a frightening Miro-style face with runaway blue, purple, red and yellow lines delicately painted in. A chubby girl drove her green marker with extra intensity. Vincent painted a boy with tears falling down his face, an indecipherable balloon of words drawn out one ear. "He's trying to tell someone to come back," Vincent says. Jesse drew himself about to be attacked by two "real tough boys."

As the smudged and streaked young creators prepared for a punch-and-cookie break, Yamada introduced some art lingo: "You are creating pictures with moods," she said.

"We teach observation skills," says coordinator Maureen Ankner. "And I can guarantee each child is changed after one week. They come away with the attitude, 'I am an artist.'

"According to Ankner, many children return to the Corcoran workshops and continue on through high school. "We're not arts-and-crafts-oriented, not '100 ways to make a piggybank or pencil-holder from a Clorox bottle.' I ignore that," she says.