How do you make a million dollars in the art business? Start with $5 million and open a gallery.

George Thomasson and Michael Sprouse didn't know that art business joke when they launched Eklektikos Gallery in Georgetown's Canal Square complex in 1994, but were aware they'd chosen a risk-fraught business. Even some of their friends were predicting the new enterprise would sink within a year, taking the partners' sanity and savings down with it.

"Maybe we were naive or crazy, but we thought opening the gallery was a good idea at the time because we saw this demand for contemporary art that was affordable," says Thomasson, who also works as an accountant. "What we quickly learned was that you've got to constantly work just to survive. We aren't getting rich. Both of us still have day jobs. But the reward is the relationships you develop with the artists and their art. Since we're still here, I'd say we're doing something right."

To celebrate its fifth anniversary, Eklektikos is showing a new group of portraits in acrylic and mixed media by an artist who has shown there repeatedly: co-owner Sprouse. Fortunately, it ranks as one of the most stellar exhibitions in the gallery's brief history.

Portraiture is a significant departure from the abstract style Sprouse has worked in for the past decade and a change for the better. Representational imagery had been cropping up in some of his paintings over the past few years, softening their focus and making them seem mannered and vapid, like recycled cubism.

By contrast, this group of nine pictures is original, lively and full of personality. Sprouse, who is also a computer graphics specialist, began the works by scanning portraits from his extensive collection of antique black-and-white photographs into a computer. Using the Adobe Photoshop program, he manipulated the images, highlighting certain features, adding color, creating a background. Then he printed out the image and used it as a rough template for the painting. As a final touch, he applied paint to enlarged, scanned-in text that was taken from Civil War era letters and placed around the figures.

The results are eye-catching. Most of the faces have that wide-eyed, wonder-struck gaze unique to photography's infancy. There's no artifice or posturing in Sprouse's subjects. They stare at the lens as if they were beholding the birth of a cyclopean deity. In technological terms, they were.

The addition of color brings the subjects to life. Sprouse hasn't changed his palette much. Shades of yellow, aquamarine and blue predominate, accented with some vivid touches of orange-red pastel. But the hues are used more effectively than before, adding not just visual interest but psychological weight. Making the off-the-shoulder dress of the young woman in "The Dance" red adds an assertive flirtatiousness that no black-and-white picture could convey.

Weaving lines from letters into the pictures also adds layers of imagery and meaning. The bits of sentences, some printed, others in script, aren't really legible, but they create the illusion of a narrative, as if the figures were being transported through time and emerging from their personal stories into the present through a part in history's curtains.

"I got this idea for making paintings that combined photography, the state-of-the-art technology from the end of the last century, with computers, which are the cutting edge technology at the end of our century," Sprouse says. "When I painted the portraits, I really felt like I was giving these people new lives. I developed a relationship with each one of them."

The exhibitions at Eklektikos have been a mixed bag in terms of quality and consistency during its five years of existence. But if this is viewed as the first show of the rest of the gallery's life, it's off to a promising new start. So is Sprouse.

Val Lewton at Addison/Ripley

Looking at Val Lewton's exhibition of recent paintings at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, one can see a striking change has taken place over the past few years in the way he paints.

The pictures dating from 1996, such as the acrylic-on-canvas "Burned Out on H Street," are tightly composed, beautifully painted, slightly blurry scenes of the less savory side of Washington life: drug addiction, homelessness and the indifference of those in power to the plight of the poor. That ability to find the picturesque qualities of socially relevant scenes makes Lewton's paintings from that period seem a bit like latter-day Ashcan School art. That's not bad. But for all their visual appeal, the works seem formal and rather stiff.

What a difference two years can make. Looking at paintings such as "Divided We Stand" and "Pacific Real Estate," both from 1998, one gets the feeling that Lewton is working fast and free and really enjoying it. The newer stuff is still representational, but in an even hazier way. There are big, almost abstract fields of luscious color that seem to casually form the sunlit sky over an urban construction site in which the buildings' shapes shift effortlessly into mountains towering over a Western landscape.

The luminous, sun-splashed colors and the brushy surface textures bring Richard Diebenkorn to mind. But the ideas--for example, man's futile, frenzied-ant efforts to build cities as magnificent as the Rocky Mountains--and the compositions are uniquely Lewton's.

Michael Sprouse, at Eklektikos Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW; Tuesday-Friday, 2-6 p.m., Saturday, noon-6 p.m.; 202-342-1809; through Nov. 17.

Val Lewton, at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, 1670 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday; 202-338-5180; through Oct. 30.

CAPTION: At Eklektikos, co-owner Michael Sprouse departs from his abstract style in a new group of portraits, including "The Dance," above. At Addison/Ripley, Val Lewton frees up his style--going almost abstract with paintings like 1998's "Divided We Stand," below.