Those of us who think of sweet little "Pinky" and precious "Blue Boy" when we think of Thomas Gainsborough will think differently after seeing the Gainsborough sketches and drawings now at the National Gallery of Art's West Building.

While Gainsborough (1727-1788) masterfully painted the rich and famous in the romantic style and settings that were then in fashion, he was born and remained a countryman whose private work grew bolder and more free throughout his life.

The 91 works, assembled from 33 museums and private collections, represent about 10 percent of those that survive from the thousands he drew; his practice of drawing nearly every night was a pastime that became a compulsion. He was as impatient as a spoiled child, a friend said, anxious to get onto paper the compositions that crowded his mind.

Always he searched for faster techniques, simpler lines, the telling stroke, working with increasing agitation in ever-darker rooms. Toward the end a single candle was all he needed to light a portrait subject, having long since dispensed with detail. His daughter Margaret said that her father "scarcely ever in the advanced part of his life drew with black lead pencil as He cd. not with sufficient expedition make out his effects."

"We probably can appreciate these drawings better today than any of those who have gone before," says J. Carter Brown, gallery director. "We have the advantage of having been exposed to the impressionism and abstraction that he anticipated."

Landscapes, portraits, figures, the drawings are pared to their essentials as the years roll on, with Gainsborough returning repeatedly to scenes and themes he'd done before, to see what more he could leave out.

Gainsborough's companion passion was music, at which he was sufficiently talented to draw the admiration of professionals. Eventually, he almost managed to merge the disciplines, for his hand came to do for the eye what his viola da gamba did for the ear.

The exhibition's another masterpiece of the International Exhibitions Foundation, which winkled some of the works out of English manor houses where they've been jealously guarded for generations. GAINSBOROUGH DRAWINGS -- Through December 4 at the National Gallery of Art, West Building.