Romare Bearden, the American master of collages, compares the artist to a whale, absorbing everything until the saturation point when "he can start making limitations and he can grow." What the viewer will want after seeing the exceptional half-hour documentary "Bearden Plays Bearden," on Channel 26 tonight at 9, is an exhaustive look at Bearden's world.

Though Bearden is certainly one of the world's best-known black artists, his many Renaissance qualities are not always showcased. This film, produced by Third World Cinema, skillfully follows his themes from the rural landscapes of North Carolina to the urban geography of New York, using filmed scenes to counterpoint the symbols of trains, snakes and guitars in his vibrant canvases. His talent as a set and costume designer is joyfully illustrated by the Alvin Ailey dancers.

At one point, Bearden stands on a roof with writer Albert Murray, drawing a group of brownstone buildings, and says, "We are actually making a keyboard and we are already defining a musicial composition." At that point you want to hear more about the influences of Earl Hines and Bessie Smith on Bearden's work, and hear some of his thoughts about the role of black artists.

The show takes its approach not from the looming reputation of this short, stocky man but from his simple philosophical manner. It notes his importance, through the emphatic voice of narrator James Earl Jones; it notes his universality through quick scholarly asides by Bearden and others, but it rejects heavy-handedness for a modest lyricism.

But Bearden the sage, as well as the artist, is not restricted by the show's brevity. When Jones explains how ordinary gestures become mythic in Bearden's sight, listen to Bearden's response: "The clock is stopped now, I can never know where the edge of my world can be. If I could only enter that old calendar that opens to an old, old July and learn what unknowing things know. It is not so much the experience, what you've been through, but the way you weave your memories."

WETA has included the show in a special Black History Month package. While that is certainly appropriate, Bearden's show, and the others, have a significance far beyond the month of February. There are far-reaching lessons. In the show Bearden says his "greatest lesson in art" was a discussion he had with a former prostitute who cleaned his studio and asked him to paint her portrait. Bearden thought she was homely. She told him, "When you can draw me or look at me and find what is beautiful in me, then you can put something on that paper of yours."