"Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere." -- G.K. Chesterton

The richly colored, fanciful images of Joan Stolz grow under her hand unexpectedly. Whether working in paint or pastels, she allows her images to emerge from the medium of their own volition, suggesting themselves in the arbitrary colors and forms with which she begins her pictures. Carefully, delightedly, she nudges them along, defining and redefining them until they assume individual identities.

Because of her method of working, anything is possible in a Stolz picture. A yellow polar bear may gambol on red grass, while thalo-blue dogs frisk along behind. An impossibly fat, flat fellow with ice-blue eyes grins out at the viewer from behind a vase of flowers. Sometimes her nearly classical arrangements are inspired by, or composed to resemble, a familiar Van Gogh, Manet or Rembrandt. But even when this is so, the characters and lush articulation of the medium are distinctly Stolz.

"I like my paintings to amuse me," says the 31-year-old artist. "In my studio I play with the paint, play with the images. I don't want to get too close to understanding what's happening with the paint or pastel. I'm afraid it would drain the creativity. Analyzation might dry me up."

Soft-spoken, shy and quick to laugh, Stolz talks about her work guardedly, as if she's not quite sure she should -- as if she might betray a confidence, or expose her painted creatures to some danger.

"My work is serious work, but it has to interest and amuse me -- affect me. I think of it as being about exploring psychology. It is about wondering where these images come from. Like, when I paint children, I wonder how they got to be like they are.

"I'm interested in discovering the images in the paint or pastel itself. I begin just by putting the color on the paper. Then I can perceive them evolving. Sometimes I'll appropriate, or," she says with a laugh, "swipe an image from someone else's picture that I admire. But when I put it down, it becomes something else. Appropriated images often get away from me. But that's okay. And sometimes they just disappear altogether."

Stolz's pastels, in particular, have a delicacy of balance and finish that at times call to mind the surety of Degas, though perhaps not so robust. She does not use a fixative on her work (which can deaden the velvety surface of heavily applied pastels), preferring to risk the occasional incautious smudge so that her glowing, earthy tones remain vibrant but soft.

If properly taken care of, pastels are among the longest-lived media available, but they have recently fallen into disfavor -- owing to the time and care required to produce effective contrasts between hard and soft line or tone. Stolz owes her accomplished technique in great part to her studies with Grace Hardigan at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she took her M.F.A. this year.

Stolz acknowledges the childlike whimsy of her subjects and handling, and also admits to a more compelling dimension. "I have a real interest in the grotesque," she says. "I see it come out in the work. Probably because I always work from my imagination. Except for boyfriends, sometimes, I don't do direct portraiture. I'm interested in themes like sleep, or what people do when they're by themselves. Even when I use someone else's image, I appropriate a composition that strikes me as a little odd, or oddly beautiful."

Joan Stolz is represented by Gallery K.