Even sitting in a hotel room overlooking M Street NW, Robert Bateman looks like a man who belongs in the outdoors. At age 60, his cheeks are ruddy, his blond locks -- now shaded with more than a touch of gray -- look slightly windswept. And his outfit -- sneakers, jeans, blue-checkered flannel shirt and gray sweater-vest -- look more suitable for a nature walk than a round of interviews in the nation's capital. But he's here, far from his home in the woods of British Columbia, to promote his new book of nature paintings, "Robert Bateman: An Artist in Nature," just published by Random House.

"I'm still just a painter," says Bateman, who is also described on the book jacket as both a naturalist and conservationist. "I'm just basically a painter who paints what concerns him.

"A naturalist is someone who loves the outdoors and pays attention to the individual species," he explains. "I graduated from being an amateur naturalist to an amateur ecologist, and there's not really a big step from there to being an amateur conservationist or environmentalist. They're the ones who actually work to save the environment."

Not that he's been far from that end of the woods either. Although he denies being a stump-thumper for eco-conciousness, in one way or another he's worked his whole life to keep the earth green, either directly -- by donating money from the sale of his art to environmental organizations -- or indirectly -- by re-creating the beauty of nature with his paintbrush. "The only message is not from me as an artist, but from me as a human being," he says, "I think that if you're a doctor, a lawyer, an Indian chief or a chief executive officer, whatever you do, you should be doing something for the environment."

Art and nature. They're hard things to separate in Bateman's life. He grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, which in the 1940s still had a lot of trees and wildlife. He kept sketchbooks of the birds, flowers and plants he would see in the fields near his house. He eventually studied geology at the University of Toronto, but ended up teaching art to high school students for almost 20 years, a job he gave up in 1976 to paint full time when his paintings started fetching high prices.

But the success he achieved in the commercial market didn't translate to a warm reception in the critical arena. Contemporary realism, often associated with motel paintings and wildlife postcards, has never been a favorite among critics. Mention this to Bateman, and the hands that have been working the conversation, the ones that he has been using to flex all 10 of his fingertips together in that spider-doing-push-ups-on-a-mirror fashion, suddenly become pointers, index fingers out, jabbing the chest of an imaginary highbrow critic.

"They {art critics} sometimes say that I'm not a contemporary 20th-century painter," he says. "I'm much more contemporary than cubism. They're just old-fashioned in thinking."

He's obviously thought a lot about this.

"It's an interesting challenge and the more I think about it, the more I feel sorry for those I call the 'priesthood,' the art establishment. This has been dawning on me as kind of provocative thesis. There's a parallel between modernism and Marxism."

He's on a roll now.

"The beginning of the 20th century was an exciting time for the whole planet ... there was a very strong thinking that we must take a broom and sweep clean, take everything from the past and throw it in the garbage. Then Stalin came along with his way of doing it, to totally massacre millions of people, the intellectuals. But at the same time the modernists were saying, 'Let's burn down the art museums.' Modernism was an interesting and wonderful new phase to hit 20th-century art, but it's history. That's the point I'm making. I think of those poor guys as the Politburo, sitting in their art museums and art departments in their universities thinking that modernism is still au courant, but it isn't. It's over."

With that off his chest, he reiterates that art can't change the world. Only people inspired by art can. But he prefers that it be other people's art to do the inspiring for now. "Something's been happening to my art which is unfortunate," says Bateman. "Because of these charity things, I'm getting bent in a commercial direction. I went into teaching so I wouldn't have to paint for the market, and I've always felt that I painted strictly for myself. I've been noticing lately that ... I've got more bald eagles, more wolves, more loons, more of the popular kind of things. I'm getting bent, and I'm getting very uncomfortable with that. I've made a vow, within the last month, that I'm going to say no to doing any more originals for anyone else except for me. No charities, no deadlines for group shows.

"I found that in a sense I'm blessed with this fame and fortune and I have way more than I need," he says. "So instead of originals, I'm going to give them original prints, those will go to the charities and the auctions. I'll just do whatever I can."