The gallery director, suddenly alert, flourishes an arm at the wall.

"That canvas," he declares, addressing a flush-looking couple (purple plaids, full- length fur) who've just wandered in from M Street, "is pivotal . . . This one here" -- he whirls about -- "is more what I'd call transitional . . . This one, in my personal opinion, is probably the best buy of the lot . . . "

From his emplacement behind a table, in a thicket of neo-impressionist oils, the gallery director breathlessly lobs an arsenal of mots d'art: "Painterly . . . stylized . . . " the words shoot out. " . . . Brushwork . . . organic . . . " the cannonade continues.

The couple fends off these volleys at first with polite murmurs, but finally the two of them wrench themselves free and head for the safety of the sidewalk. "Thanks," the gallery director sighs as the pair slips away, "for coming." The irrepressible -- and atypical -- J.R. Black, of the Washington World Gallery, muses later, "I don't really believe in pressure. The most I'll ever do, if I see someone showing an obvious interest in a certain piece, is walk up behind them and say, 'Shall I stick a red dot by that for you?' "

The red dot grates on sensibilities a lot less, say, than huge crimson tags blaring "SOLD," and it may yet become a plainer sight now that the weather's cooled off. Because to some people, there's hardly a better way to pass a weekend afternoon than splurging through the galleries of Washington.

Museums, of which this city has its share, are fine, yet if you fancy Paul Klee at the Phillips, you can hardly take him home. Washington's hundred-odd commercial galleries, which accommodate nearly every taste, would have you do just that. Though most gallery-hoppers can't shell out for the likes of Klee, and few of them buy more than once in an aqua moon, even $15 for a tiny etching can induce the sensation of splurging.

"It was kind of scary at first," says Kathy O'Hearn, 27, a CBS News photographer who recently started collecting paintings and prints, "but then, as I'd find myself falling in love with a piece, it began to feel marvelous."

Garrison Bruso, a Montgomery County school teacher, recalls his first big purchase, a $900 assemblage by New Englander Rod Slater at Bethesda's Plum Gallery, as transporting him to "a state of euphoria."

Bruso since has scrimped on clothes, food, entertainment and even mobility -- he rode a bike for six months after his car broke down -- to acquire more of Slater's creations. "As soon as I walked into the gallery and saw his stuff, I became very excited," he says. "I saw things in it from my own life, and knew immediately that I would never get tired of it."

Will Franzheim is one collector who knows all too well about the ecstasy of art buying -- and the agony that sometimes follows. A 26-year-old West Virginian who's toyed with opening a gallery of his own, he started buying paintings at the age of seven. "It was a landscape," he says wistfully. "I picked it up at an art fair in Wheeling, West Virinia, for 25 bucks. I remember the price because it was my Christmas money. My parents thought I was nuts."

The day he came to Washington as classified ad salesman two years ago, Franzheim began filling his digs near Dupont Circle -- not with furniture (he had no sofa) but with abstracts (his tastes changed), for which he paid prices ranging from $150 to $800, most at the lower end of that scale.

Though modest by art-crowd standards, his collection included: a construction in painted driftwood, titled "Stopping Place," by New York sculptor / dealer Betty Parsons; an outsize canvas of two flat-looking cows, titled "This Is Also a Dance Tune," by Washington painter Wil Brunner; four Brunner still-lifes of flat apples and oranges; eight abstract constructions in embedded felt (mostly fuzzy-edged squares on murky fields) by another local artist, Andrea Way; and two boxy assemblages by Madolin Teal Cervantes, a 24-year-old local artist with a gift for arsenic and old lace (one, titled "Swan Song," contains dangling ballet shoes and delicate shards of mirror -- "It's about living life on the edge," Franzheim guesses).

Then he had a financial reverse.

Desperate for cash, he sold most of his collection at a $6,000 loss. In the meantime, he was thrown out of his apartment and into a blue funk.

"The way I look at the whole deal," he says, now that he's back on his feet, "is that I got a very good education." He's started buying again.

"I don't buy art to go over the sofa, and I don't really buy for investment," he says. "If I buy something, it has to be inspirational, either emotionally or intellectually. A painting's like a drug: it can take you out of yourself and then take you back into yourself with an added twist. It can create a certain feeling that you can hang on to forever."

Recently, as he does about once a month, Franzheim hopped over to the converted warehouse at 406 Seventh Street NW ("406" as it's known), which has become the home of five galleries. The Seventh Street corridor, for local art mavens, recently has become a bigger draw than Georgetown and Dupont Circle. First hitting B.R. Kornblatt, the newest of the lot, Franzheim registered an immediate reaction to the paintings of Yun James Yohe. He snickered.

"Everybody's doing this grid stuff," he scoffed, standing before one of the painter's psychedelic creations and shaking his head. "It reminds me of 'Altered States,' did you see that? Or maybe it's 'Hieronymus Bosch Visits Alice in Wonderland' . . . Or maybe it's a periscopic view of getting sick, with all that intestinal junk flying around." At a huge yellow canvas, filled, like the others, with precise gridwork and bacteria-like squiggles, he sniffed, "It looks like a cover for Scientific American." If there was anyone in the gallery to argue the point, that person kept his counsel.

Having handed Yohe's show short shrift, Franzheim pressed on to McIntosh/Drysdale on the second floor, where the work of 18 contemporary decorative artists was on display. Indifferently, he wandered past a vulgar mosaic pillar with ball alongside, a glittery wire partition speckled with rhinestones, a panel of Persian-looking tile work ("Well, this is definitely what's happening in decorative art"), and paused in front of a large pattern painting by Washingtonian Jerry Clapsaddle. He gazed for a while, resting his chin on his hand, walked up inches from the canvas and briefly touched the pigment, then moved to one side and stared at it diagonally; then he stepped to the other side, then backed slowly away.

"I like this," Franzheim announced finally."Look at the light going through that thing!"

"That's translucent paint," put in a gallery assistant, who had appeared as if from nowhere to squint over Franzheim's shoulder. "If you look very closely, you can actually see a figure in that painting." Franzheim stared harder, until he could make out a murky human form in the gradients of light and color. "That's wild!" he exclaimed.

And for a mere $3,750, it could have been his.

On to Osuna, where the terra-cotta sculptures of Georges Jeanclos -- mostly beggars and monks on beds of rags and twigs -- struck Franzheim as "High Catholic," because, he explained, "I can see a lot of inner turmoil and suffering there."

"What religion is this guy, Catholic?" Franzheim called hopefully to someone who sat typing in the office. "No," the gallery staffer snapped back, "Jewish."

Up on the third floor, Franzheim sauntered into Diane Brown, a gallery heavy on sculpture. "Is this Eric Rudd?" he asked the proprietor, who was showing that day a lot of bluish blobs half-caught in standing plexiglass. The very same, Diane Brown assured him. "He's getting slick," Franzheim remarked.

Franzheim and Brown chatted a bit, and she began pulling out magazine blurbs on Lita Albuquerque, a young painter and installation artist with a growing reputation. Brown directed his attention to one of Albuquerque's acryllic and pastel drawings, priced at $1,200 and hanging outside her office. Will Franzheim lit up.

"Very powerful," he told Brown after a few moments' study. "When I can afford it, I'll be coming back here to buy it -- whenever that is."

The transactions among collectors, dealers and artists -- even concerning clowns on velvet -- aren't business deals in the usual sense. "People who buy," says gallery owner Barbara Fiedler, "are buying what they want, not what they need." Another gallery owner, Chris Middendorf, says, "Utility? Basically, art doesn't have any."

The goods and services rendered for cash are sometimes fairly mysterious, as a glance at any art journal reveals. "Communication exists in name only," reads a typically abstruse insight from Artforum, an influential monthly, "for the materially abstracted work is addressed to no one in particular, and those who find themselves addressed by it are neither transformed by nor have any transformative effect on it."

There must be something about the allure of art that borders on the mystical. Milo Hoots, an interior designer whose foyer sports a striking sculpture by Lester Van Winkle (a glowering, seven-foot-tall woman, arms akimbo, titled "Angel of Giliad"), claims he can almost see into people's souls by their reactions to the thing: "If one of my friends decides he really doesn't like it, I start thinking about that person and the state of our friendship, because I love the piece so much."

Rod Slater, Garrison Bruso's favorite, says from his studio in Waterville, Maine, "If somebody can tell me very succinctly why they like what I've done, then I know that I haven't struck a chord. When you buy a work of art, what you're really buying is a little enigma."

But because a gallery is a place of business, more than a few casual browsers, the dealers' protests to the contrary, suffer from guilt feelings whenever they pay a visit. Dan Goldfarb, a 24-year-old government worker who yearns for 19th-century Hudson River Valley landscapes that are currently beyond his reach, confesses, "I feel bad when I walk into a gallery and know I'm not going to buy anything. I used to work for a pizza parlor and a pharmacy, so I know what it's like in retailing." To which Diane Brown says, "I know that a lot of people feel that way -- and it's dumb. We're here to make money, but we're also here for people's education."

Still, there's no point denying that the tango between browser and dealer gets touchy at times. Who speaks first? Is there any talk at all? Does the reception bring on frostbite or heat stroke? Those are some of the awkward issues that arise on occasion in galleries, as dealers scope out potential clients (a word much preferred to "customers") and browsers parade from frame to frame.

"You can tell a lot from eye movements and body stance," says J.R. Black of the Washington World. "If someone is just going from painting to painting very quickly, he probably doesn't know or care much about art. But if he's taking his time, looking for specific things in a painting and going at it from different angles, then he's probably a collector or an artist."

Jean Nowak, an executive with the Small Business Administration, who began collecting in earnest after getting herself a divorce, says, "In Washington, I haven't had much of a problem, but in some of the hoity-toity New York galleries, especially if you're a non-New Yorker, you do get the funny feeling that you're not the most welcome thing on their doormat. I like people to smile and say hello, and then I like them to leave me alone."

Margaret Cheney, a young Washington lawyer, agrees. "I remember walking into one gallery," she reports, "and a woman there started up a constant ng slicpatter: 'Isn't this wonderful?' 'Isn't that nice?' 'That's my favorite.' I found it very disconcerting, because I was trying to decide for myself how I felt about the work. So I walked out -- and haven't been back."

On a slow day at Henri on 21st Street near P, owner Henrietta Ehrsam, something of a grande dame in the Washington art community, might break the ice -- literally -- by pouring out a couple of shots of vodka. "I won't let you out of here alive," Henri declaims imperiously, "unless you have a drink."

"People always want to know what my favorite painting is, but I never tell them," says Henri, who moved her business from Alexandria to Washington in 1967, and was first on the P Street strip. "They always say 'Why? Why? Why?' It's such a stupid question, something you'd expect from a two- year-old. What a bore!"

Then there are dealers who work only by appointment, the better to get through the preliminaries. One of the them, H.H. -- for Helen Hope -- Leonards, sells paintings, sculpture, even furniture and bric-a-brac (most sporting price tags), from a stately Victorian on O Street, throwing daylong salons twice a week.

"This is where I live, but pretty much everything here's for sale," says Leonards, a lawyer's wife, during a respite from fielding phone calls, screaming at two Great Danes doing rambunctious things in the den, shouting instructions to her cook and adjusting her smart-looking beret. "I like flexibility, and I like to encourage flexibility with my clients, so I change everything in the house about every two weeks. Sometimes I take deliveries at two in the morning. My neighbors love me. Let me tell you, it's absolutely . . . bizarre!"

On the occasion of her 30th birthday two Novembers ago, Leonards threw herself a "Surprise Super Prizes Thirtieth Surprise Birthday Party" -- that, anyhow, is what the invitation said, as it also warned: "Gifts not accepted. Master Charge/Visa accepted."

Browsing, of course, is only part of the game, with true aficionados running a rigorous circuit of salons and exhibition openings, where it doesn't take many glasses of cheap Chablis to find out that the art world is small indeed. "If you go about it scientifically," says Rod Slater, "you can find out where the bodies are buried faster than anywhere else I know."

You can also make a pilgrimage to the studio. At the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, where artists both produce and hawk their wares on the second floor, adding an extra dimension to the browser/dealer tango, encounters between artist and patron are not to be avoided. "Looking for anything special?" asks a painter of seascapes, as she goes about painting a seascape. It's an unlikely combination of commerce and creation.

Artists who show in proper galleries, though, are often reluctant to sell their own work -- it smacks of going behind the dealer's back, for one thing -- but visiting them on their home turf can still be worth the trouble.

Madolin Cervantes, whose strange boxes have been seen at both Fiedler and Gallery 10, as well as at the International Sculpture Symposium at the vice president's mansion during the Mondale days, is one artist who welcomes the odd intrusion.

"I live a fairly hermetic existence, and hardly ever go out," she says. "I used to go out drinking or something Friday nights with people I knew, but then I started to think, 'Why am I doing this? This is incredibly boring.' I don't go to galleries much. I get distracted from what I'm doing. Usually I'll just read -- Oscar Wilde, S.J. Perelman, Woody Allen, Lewis Carroll and lots and lots of Virginia Woolf. Or I'll make notes on my dreams. I have books and books filled with them. "

Cervantes leaves it to her mother, Lenore, to lead a visitor into the square-shaped Bancroft Place townhouse -- "It's a beautiful day outside, isn't it?" Mrs. Cervantes remarks -- where all the curtains are drawn tightly shut, and the air sags with a smell of cigarettes.

A succession of boxy rooms with two grand pianolics, the house is filled entirely by Madolin Cervantes' work: mostly collages and assemblages, some featuring music boxes, all eerily baroque. One composition, titled "La Vie en Rose," contains a white glove, champagne glass and dead rose, with a wind-up music box playing the tune of the same name. Another, called "Insomnia," features a grandfather clock striking 3:30 and a sheep reclining in a four-poster while counting others of its ilk.

At length the artist descends from her third-floor studio. She's wearing a paint- spackled apron and cherry lipstick; a tinge of green graces the back of one hand.

"I'm in the studio every day," Cervantes says after lunch, pushing cigarette paper and Vulkar Sobrani tobacco into a mechanical roller. "And since I'm prone to insomnia, I'll sometimes get up at three in the morning and go on working. Sometimes I'll get so obsessed that I'll stay in the studio for days and days." She lights the cigarette and puffs. "My whole world is centered there."

It was from that studio, Cervantes says, that some next-door neighbors, including an art collector of legendary appetites who recently died, bought out her whole body of work.

"About two years ago," she says, "Joe and Olga Hirshhorn, and a friend of theirs, Ira Lowe, all came over and trooped up the stairs. Joe, who was past 80 but still sharp as a tack, just sat down and said, 'So show me what you got.' For the next couple of hours, it was, 'I want this, I want that, I like this, this is beautiful, Olga, look at this . . . ' He got the most wonderful expression on his face, just this ecstatic smile.

"I think they bought about 30 or 40 pieces," she says, "which, needless to say, gave me a great deal of sustenance."

Lighting another Vulkar Sobrani, Madolin Cervantes says, "Art does have a phenomenal utility for the psyche and the interior. It's not as if it's a luxury. It's a necessity, like food and shelter."

And then she puffs some more.