You needn't be rich to call yourself an art collector. Cash, say a few folks who know, is less important than wisdom and courage.

"By reading, going to galleries and museums, and looking at art anywhere there's an opportunity to see it, one learns to be sure enough of his taste and his eye that he begins to act on the wish to acquire things of beauty," says lawyer Lowell Doud, who collects sculpture and paintings largely from Washington artists. "You can start out small, say with prints, and the usefulness of that is that it helps you to gain a little courage."

Jean Nowak, who has collected in earnest for the last seven years, might be a case in point. Buying largely on credit -- her "high point," she says, came when she discovered she owed money to six dealers at once -- she's amassed paintings and sculpture enough to fill a small gallery. To wit: a painting by Ben Shahn, a Mao silkscreen by Andy Warhol, a whimsical baked potato sculpture by Claes Oldenburg, a Chagall lithograph, and works by such hot but less pricey artists as Robert Stackhouse, Robert Mangold, Joan Danziger, Gene Davis and Milton Avery among others.

"For me, this is serious business," Nowak says. "I'm not fooling around."

Accordingly, she visits museums to hone her eye, attends exhibition openings to look and chat, patrols the galleries in Washington and New York and keeps, in a cardboard box stowed in a closet, file folders on about 40 living artists who've caught her fancy.

"Number one," Nowak advises, "people should choose their own medium and buy what they like. Some people wouldn't buy a print just because it's for a good price and by a good artist; some people don't like prints. Second, choose what pleases you, what makes you smile, happy, or just adds something to your life. Don't buy a thing unless you are moved by it. Third, take your time and make a study of things. You wouldn't buy tile for your bathroom floor or choose wallpaper on the spur of the moment."

Still, she says, once you're sure, it's wise to act quickly. "The best thing to do, if you know you want something by a particular artist, is to arrange to look at the work before it's installed in a gallery show. That way, you can see it first," says Nowak, who has bought many pieces before others have had the chance.

Others, like hairstylist Jim Brookins, like to mix with the artists themselves. "I personally know almost every single artist I own work by," says Brookins, a fan of abstracts who sometimes buys work directly from the studio.

Says David Lloyd Kreeger, whose collection spanning from the Roman Empire to the present day is known the world over, "I do not regard art as an investment, like stocks and bonds and real estate. That attitude tends to degrade or prostitute your taste." It's a view espoused, if not observed, by a majority of collectors. So Kreeger and his wife buy only what they like.

And if they happen to like Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Miro, Rodin, James Rosenquist and Henry Moore, they're lucky enough to afford them. But for those of modest means -- or "limited resources," as he puts it -- Kreeger suggests the following:

"If you can't afford paintings, start with lithographs, etchings, signed and numbered prints by well-known artists -- things that can be converted into cash a year or two later. Take a young fella who decides to spend a thousand dollars a year. Maybe he can buy five prints in a year, then graduate to better prints, and later, buy originals. But never buy anything because it looks good against the color of a wall. It has to give you an emotional reaction."

Gilbert Kinney, another well-known collector -- his digs brim with 20th century American art -- suggests starting out with the work of "young artists and relatively undiscovered artists or else buying relatively minor pieces from well-known names." Such an approach can have its dangers -- which is half the fun of collecting, Kinney says -- but that's part of getting an education.

"There is just no substitute for buying," says Kinney, who has assembled a major collection without the benefit of advisers. "When you have to put money up for something, you have that much more of a commitment."