When a heavily laden truck hit Harold C. Shaug Jr. two years ago, slamming him into a concrete wall and nearly crushing his head, it seemed unlikely that the Falls Church artist would survive, much less paint again.

But Shaug, after four major operations to repair 23 skull fractures, now spends his days at his easel, grateful for a second chance at life.

"The doctors told my wife I was going to die," Shaug, 47, recalled. "I was hemorrhaging from the head and they couldn't find out where the blood was coming from."

Fortunately for Shaug, a plastic surgeon at Alexandria Hospital located and removed a bone fragment that had pierced the main blood vessel in his brain, thus stopping the hemorrhage.

After numerous operations to restore most of his sight and hearing and to rebuild his facial bones, Shaug was able to return to this home and the care of his wife, Pat.

"Funnily enough," Shaug said, "the night before the accident I had bought art materials because I had decided to take up painting again."

Four months later, still convalescing at home, Shaug began to paint, working in oils on huge canvases.

"I had always loved art, loved the old masters," he said, "and I decided to study their works and learn their techniques.

"I wanted to find out how those men felt inside, and I wanted to express myself the way the great masters did, to try to learn to copy their works exactly."

The result has been that Shaug is now a registered copyist with the National Gallery of Art, and was the crator of the portrait of Pope John Paul II that was presented to the pontiff during his visit to Washington.

"The Pope blessed the portrait and it now hangs in St. Matthews' Cathedral," Shaug said.

The walls of Shaug's sunny apartment are bedecked with massive copies of old masters, particularly those of the great Renaissance Italian, Raphael.

"I love Raphael," Shaug said, "He was as good a painter as ever was or ever will be. And boy, did he hate taking a back seat to Michaelangelo."

Among the Raphael paintings Shaug has copied are the Sistine Madonna (the original is in the Dresden Museum), the Madonna of the Chair and a portrait of Pope Leo X.

Shaug uses the rich, dark hues favored by Raphael, but he also has done copies and originals, of a more delicate kind.

"Francois Bouchet painted some of the muses in 1764 and 1765," Shaug said. "I copied his Muse of Music and then decided I would do one in his style on poetry."

The massive study of the allegory of poetry features a woman as the principle figure, surrounded by four cherubs.

"I like the idea of a woman as the muse of poetry," Shaug said, chuckling. "I think women have been shortchanged for too long.

"And you'll notice that the cherubs are of different races -- black, Latin, Oriental and white. I don't think anyone has ever painted a black cherub before."

Shaugh says the work reflects his basic philosophy, which came to him from his mother, a Salina Escalante Indian from California..

"My mother always told me, "Know no color. We all drink the same water, breathe the same air and go down the same distance," recalled Shaug. "I believe that, and I believe that if we don't learn to love each other and live in harmony that -- what are we here for?"

Shaug grew up on the art colony of Cambria Pines, Calif., and began to sketch by the age of 4. He kept up his art work throughout 20 years in the Air Force.

He designed the insignia for President John F. Kennedy's Air Force One, which still is the emblem for all presidential aircraft.

"Out of 5,000 entries mine was chosen, and wasn't I the fat cat?" Shaug said, laughing. "I was 23 years old and they gave me $15 and a three-day pass. I was so proud."

One of Shaug's most recent works is a portrait of Rosalynn Carter wearing a soft pink dress, with flowers in the background. He was not commissioned to do the portrait, but painted it from photographs.

"I chose the state flower of Georgia for her, the Cherokee rose," Shaug said. He hopes to present the painting to her at the White House or at Carter-Mondale election headquarters.

"She's a lovely woman," Shaug said, although he has never met Mrs. Carter, "and I also wanted to paint her for her great warmth and strength. She has such a strong, beautiful face."

At the moment, Shaug and his wife depend on the income from her job as a telephone linewoman. Eventually, however, he hopes to use his skills as a copyist for a commerical venture.

"Just think, people going into a museum can see one of the great paintings and love it, but they can never own it, can never afford it," he said. "But I can copy exactly any realistic master and produce an identical painting."

But commerce is the least of Shaug's interests right now.

"Believe me, after the accident and all that I've gone through, I'm still thankful every day that I can wake up and see the sunshine," he said. "Life is so good and we're all so lucky just to be here.'