Since before the Middle Ages in western culture and, in the East, since the development of paper and the art of printing in China and Korea during the Sui dynasty (581-618), there has been a close working relationship between the artist and the master printer. This relationship continues today in print studios the world over, the artist often relying on the master printer's expertise to push the technical limits of the craft to accommodate increasingly complex imagery.

Over the centuries the art of the print has progressed from simple woodblocks to wood engraving, lithography, serigraphy and a panoply of intaglio methods -- etching, engraving, drypoint, mezzotint, lift-ground, aquatint and photo-engraving. Now this tradition is about to take a major step forward, into the age of computer-generated graphics. Although graphics-oriented computers have been in use in corporate industry for some years, it was not until the advent of smaller, more sophisticated computers such as the Atari 400 and, more recently, the Apple MacIntosh that, due to a much smaller dot-matrix, the line resolution was fine enough to attract the serious attention of artists.

Among the first to grasp the potential of the computer as a fine arts tool was Washington gallery owner David Adamson. (The David Adamson Gallery, under the direction of Laurie Hughes, is located at 406 Seventh St. NW.) Adamson, 33, a native of England, is a master printer who has worked with many of the finer artists in this area, including William Newman, Kevin MacDonald and Andrew Hudson. Now he is turning his inventive energy to the possibilities of the MacIntosh in the printing process.

"What I'm excited about is, it seems that till now only the more expensive 'Tron'-type machines have touched the public, and they really haven't reached the fine art field yet," Adamson says. "I'm looking toward the day when you can look at a computer-generated image and recognize the artist who created that image."

Except for the machine employed, the process of producing a limited edition computer-generated print does not differ greatly from that of producing any other fine print.

"The artist brings in some rough sketches for a print," Adamson explains. "Instead of sitting him down with a litho stone and crayons and so forth, I sit him down in front of the computer. I'll show him how to operate it -- how to use the various patterns and tones, line widths and weights, swing a line or repeat an image, etc. I'm there as a sort of technical coach, on call."

After the image has been committed to the screen, Adamson will "save it to disc," "I'm looking toward the day when you can look at a computer-generated image and recognize the artist who created that image." -- Master printer David Adamson or store it for later use. At that point Adamson and the artist must decide in what medium the final print is to be realized.

"To push the image into fine art form, we can print it out as a dot-matrix on the computer -- you can even print it on fine art paper by feeding the paper into the printer -- or convert it to any number of more traditional print processes." These might include "litho, aquatint, or even a combination of techniques -- including hand-drawn imagery."

After studying sculpture at Newcastle Polytechnic in England, Adamson did his postgraduate work in printmaking under Bud Shark at the Slade School of Fine Art. He first visited the United States on a Fulbright Travel Award in 1974 to study at the Tamarind Institute of Lithography in New Mexico. He spent the next four years teaching fine art at London's Central and St. Martin's schools, then returned to this country in 1978 to work as a printer in Richmond, Va. It was there, in 1980, that he started Atlantic Editions, his print workshop. Soon he had discovered computers.

"Given my background as a master printer and publisher," Adamson says, "I want to extend an almost medieval artisan-artist concept, taking the quantum leap in technology to enable an artist to come into the studio and work with me to produce computer-generated editions . . .

"In addition to a limited, high-quality product, you could have several artists on one disc, to be viewed by consumers anywhere in the world on their own machines -- sort of a sampler. This should make it attractive to the status quo art dealers."

To make computer imagery more acceptable, Adamson, with the help of architect James Stokoe, has designed software for the MacIntosh. Published and distributed by the Hayden Co., the "Da Vinci" series enables even those without extensive training as draftsmen to produce accomplished computer drawings.

"The computer," says Adamson, "should be seen as an extension of the artist. A tool, not as an end in itself."