Peter Milton, a victim of his virtues, is a master nagged by doubt.

The etchings he's perfected after 20 years of struggle, though meticulous, mysterious and as sexy as they're subtle, now bring him small joy. The drawings he is showing at Franz Bader's gallery may be even finer than the prints that brought him fame. To look into these images--they are technically astounding, their accuracy awes--is to drift into a world where nymphs swim through the perfumed air and sunlight glints on tall silk hats, where time and rationality and staircases dissolve. Peter Milton's drawings--all done on transparent film, many made for etchings--are triumphant works of art. Yet their triumphs taunt him.

Milton knows too well that the labor that went into them offers no release, only more labor to come. Certain gifted artists, captains of the gesture, can summon beauty quickly, but Milton is not one of these. His eyesight has been damaged by the care with which he draws, and he often yearns for speed, but his muse allows no shortcuts. Milton may spend many months on a single drawing, but when, at last, the drawing's done, his work has only started. He knows he could spend years--with steel needles, acids, photosensitive resists and ultraviolet light--transferring the drawings hanging in this show to the copper plates from which he pulls his prints.

Loyalty to etching imprisons Peter Milton.

Even when he offers us plunging stallions, monsters or steam locomotives, Milton's art is quiet. In "Jupiter and Io," a young girl gasps in ecstasy in the god's embrace--we sense him in the light, in the sunlight on the doorknob, in the wind that stirs the curtains, in the whole environment--and yet no cymbals clash. Each of Milton's images has the hush of reverie. He is the whispering magician of contemporary art.

His magic is apparent not only in technique, but in the way his elements, his circus girls and clocks, ghosts and gilded mirrors, cats and kangaroos, suddenly unite. "Suffering as I do from a tendency bordering on the puritanical to work at art," he's written, "I find my reward in the unexpected pleasures of a surprising and mysterious effect, when all the knowns have finally, magically combined to produce a completely unknown, magical end."

Magic should be flawless. The conjurer who errs, who drops his deck of cards or who lets the audience glimpse the rabbit up his sleeve, is a laughing stock, a failure. Peter Milton's audience allows him no mistakes.

Connoisseurs of etchings, who refuse to forgive an imperfectly wiped plate or a dull impression, are incessantly demanding. The painstaking techniques that Milton has invented--for putting ink on mylar or graphite on drafting film, and for transferring his drawings to his copper plates--are, as he will tell you, "incredibly laborious--and they exact their price."

Milton has, of late, attempted to save time by using photographic methods and high-contrast negatives for transferring to copper his subtle graphite drawings. Three of the new etchings he has made with that technique are in his exhibition. Perfect they are not. They are slightly harder, and slightly duller, too, than the soft pencil drawings that brought them into being, and Peter Milton knows it.

"It's driving me crazy," says the artist. "It is terrible to think that technique, and nothing else, might be my art's appeal. I think of it as a bloody stone around my neck. I have no respect for craft as craft. I think it is a waste of time." But what is he to do? He might try to sell his drawings, as he is doing here, but they take so long to make that he has very few, and the money they might earn him is far less than he would get from selling large editions of his time-consuming etchings. The thought of spending years turning drawings into prints does not please Peter Milton. He sees his future yawn before him. "In my despairing moments, I fear, oh my God, nothing I do is acceptable unless I break my back doing it."

Milton cannot paint--for he is color-blind. He also fears that drawings are somehow second-class works of art. There is so much that he wants to draw, he senses his art changing, but does he have the time?

Milton, who is Yale-trained, spent part of his boyhood here, and taught for years in Baltimore. He is now 51. At first he published landscapes. When his two children were small--they soon will go to college--babies and young children often appeared in his art. So did bits of social history--images from Eakins, Muybridge and Degas, and quotes from antique photographs. His newest work includes what he calls "adult material." Beautiful young men and women, often wearing nothing, stretch and flirt and float in Peter Milton's art. But even at its sexiest, his art is never coarse. "It is about sex from the inside--as it feels--rather than from the outside--as it looks."

"I sometimes think," he says, "my main motive is affection. I love the people that I draw. I love them for their beauty, for their foolishness."

Though the beauties in his art are accompanied by beasts, Milton's love is clear. It is his love for fineness, for reverie and etching, that forces him to wrestle on with his harsh, demanding muse. His show at Franz Bader's, 2001 Eye St. NW, closes April 17. Judy Greenberg's Landscapes

In the first show of a series devoted to the work of "emerging artists," the Slavin Gallery, 404 Seventh St. NW, is showing abstract landscapes by Washington's Judy Greenberg. Though far too repetitious, their timing is just right. Their colors are the gentle ones, the soft grays and yellows and the pale greens, of Washington in spring. Her paintings here combine quickly brushed acrylic paint and quickly scribbled pastel lines, and occasionally collage. The extraneous materials she attaches to her pictures, newsprint, bits of burlap, add little to her art, but her other two materials often combine well. At first glimpse Greenberg's paintings appear to be abstractions, but if one waits, or squints, elements of landscape--trunks of trees and wisps of cloud, the surfaces of lakes and pools--may be seen within them. Her show closes April 14.