When 54-year-old Joan Liebman, a determined and talented artist, finally decided to make painting a career, she had already raised three daughters and traveled extensively as the wife of a Naval officer.

That was 20 years ago, but her success since then has shown that she was not the least bit discouraged by her late start.

The current exhibit at Gallery West in Alexandria, "Shapes and Shadows," is Liebman's first one-woman show, and it reveals her to be a refreshingly original artist.

In large part, it is because she concentrates on people, places and objects in her life, and that in turn gives her paintings--all oil on canvas--a realistic style.

"A lot of the people in my paintings are members of my family," Liebman said when asked where she looks for inspiration.

Her work is highlighted by the cool shades of purples, blues and greens, seen particularly in "Pompano Beach" and "Summer Shadow."

The spatial relationships on her canvases are almost postimpressionistic. Objects slant at unlikely angles as does the plane of the painting itself. The colors of objects in the paintings are not always true to life.

Liebman explains her style by noting she lived in Japan at one point as a Navy wife. Indeed, it was from Japanese prints that the masters of the postimpressionistic period adapted the bird's-eye view perspective for their paintings.

As for the gallery, it is pleasant and bright. It is also the only fine arts cooperative in Alexandria. Organized in 1979 by 15 local artists, it provides a forum for each to have a one-person show once a year.

"Shapes and Shadows" will be on exhibit through April 15 at Gallery West, 1314 King St., Alexandria. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and noon to 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call 549-7359.