Ray Bradbury lives in a world of metaphor and poetry and fable, so it's perfectly natural that he considers a dust jacket more than something to keep the dirt off. It is, he says, a "second, evanescent skin."

For 37 years, Bradbury has been bugged by a blemished jacket on his most famous book, "The Martian Chronicles." Artist Robert Watson caught the ambivalence of the stories with his depiction of a solitary figure contemplating a ruined pillar. Everything was shrouded in blue, which evokes the ancient Martian civilization that the Earthmen arrive to exploit casually, unthinkingly, uncaringly.

So what does the publisher do? Prints the cover in red. After all, Mars is the Red Planet, isn't it?

That edition of the book was long out of print, the vivid jacket tucked away in the memory of thousands of boys, when Bradbury and Watson decided to memorialize the original painting. A limited-edition print was made, and the duo has been hawking it around the country. This month, they touched down at the Calvert Gallery at the Omni Shoreham Hotel.

For Bradbury, at least, such promotion is highly unusual. Even when he has a new book, he doesn't peddle it through bookstores the way nearly every other author must. Instead, he does speaking engagements at libraries and universities, promoting something grander and more elusive than a mere book: Ray Bradbury. He's an icon, and knows it.

"This is a new adventure," the 74-year-old writer says mildly. "I've never done anything like this."

Watson, 72, chimes in: "We decided if we can make some bucks, great. But it had to be fun. I live in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. I decided I had to get out of there, or I'd either burn up or burn out."

Bradbury is usually the most ebullient person around -- at a College Park gig two years ago, he had more vigor than all the students in the audience put together -- but this time he's low-key, practically reserved. Watson, perhaps fearful of being overshadowed, is more than eager to fill the gap.

"This is the third show we've done, under terrific pressure," the painter says. "In San Francisco, we had Bradbury groupies on the one hand, Watson groupies on the other. I had them coming out of the woods. Robert, guess who died since I saw you last?' Talk about pressure."

Writer and artist knew each other's work before they met. Bradbury went into a Los Angeles gallery in the early '50s, right as he was beginning his hot streak -- not only "The Martian Chronicles" but "The Illustrated Man," "Fahrenheit 451" and "Something Wicked This Way Comes," all of which made him the most significant American fantasy writer since L. Frank Baum a half-century before.

No one in the gallery knew or cared about Ray Bradbury. All they saw was a scruffy young man looking at these paintings, scribbling on a sheet of paper. "There were a half-dozen people then in Los Angeles copying my work. I had a court order against some of these guys," says Watson. The gallery owner thought Bradbury was another one, and had him thrown out.

The writer laughs genially. "I was just taking notes to make sure I remembered the paintings correctly." He recalled them well enough so that when Doubleday wanted to reissue "The Martian Chronicles" in hardcover in 1958 -- in a mere eight years it had established itself as a modern classic -- Bradbury recommended Watson.

Says the artist: "When I got the letter from Doubleday, I said, Oh God, yes.' They said do as you will, but we have to hold you to two colors." He chose Prussian blue and the appropriately named Mars orange. "It worked, beautifully," he says.

The first either knew of the jacket's being printed in red was when they got copies of the finished book in the mail. Both sighed and moved on. Bradbury bought the original painting for $300. "He now has it insured for $10,000," Watson says. "And the Air and Space Museum may want it."

The mention of the museum stirs a memory in Bradbury. "I created a planetarium show for them which was never produced. I had in my script that the Big Bang occurred 10 billion years ago. They called and said, No, 12 billion.' I said, Prove it.' "

He shakes his head in exasperation. "I said, You want to teach people in the planetarium, I want to preach.' They were doing the whole show wrong."

"He's a preacher," says Watson, "but he's also the last great American."

"Oh, listen to this," Bradbury mutters, pretending to be displeased.

The true-blue prints cost $450 each. Watson explains the economics: "We started off with maybe 500 or a thousand. Then they said there's a gal out there who got 20 issues of 25,000 {prints} and sells them out. I thought, Well, we'll make some extras just in case this thing takes off like a big bird.' Then I'm beginning to think about the Trekkies -- they'll love it, they'll go crazy."

So they made 3,000. "We have to share with the dealers, to some degree. I'm breaking even," Watson says, a bit defensively.

It's time to go over to a reception at the gallery. In addition to the painting, 17 other works by Watson are on display. Most have the same moody feel, with a solitary figure set against a mysterious landscape. You won't please the artist by calling the paintings either science fictional or surrealist.

"This is just the landscape of my mind," he says, adding with some heat that he despises the current trend toward ultra-realism.

"If we don't have to use our imaginations we say, This is really cool, great, let's buy it.' The whale painters are very good at that. They get $150,000 apiece for these things, and they get $25,000 apiece for their prints, and all it is is one whale leaping in the water after another."

Hey, Bob, chill out. Take a lesson from Bradbury -- he's already sitting down, chatting with a couple of admirers. You become a legend by letting them come to you. CAPTION: Ray Bradbury and Robert Watson in front of Watson's painting that was used for the dust jacket of "The Martian Chronicles."