"I'm real happy right now--real strong," says Washington artist Kevin MacDonald, who, at age 35, has every reason to be pleased with himself.

In less than a decade his talent has propelled him on a steady ascent from art-student guard at the Phillips Collection into his current orbit as one of the city's most successful and beloved artists.

And both the richness of his work and his prices have paralleled that ascent: In his first solo show at Studio Gallery in 1974, his small black-and-white drawings of empty interiors brought $100--frame included. The far larger and more complex color pencil drawings now on view at Lunn Gallery are priced at $1,700. They were nearly sold out before today's opening.

Though constantly enriched, MacDonald's subject matter has never changed: spare, silent, stripped-down interior scenes of rumpled bedrooms and empty cafeterias; eerily lit exteriors of bars and houses, from Glen Echo to California. All are mysteriously silent and unpeopled, yet replete with the sense of past and future occupancy. In each drawing is a light source--a lamp, a juke box, or sunlight beaming through a crack in the door--that washes the scene with magical light, which ultimately engulfs the viewer as well.

But while sustaining and expanding all of this--now his signature stock-in-trade--MacDonald has undertaken two major changes in this new cycle of work: larger formats than ever before (26x40) and the use of pastel chalk (along with his usual colored and graphite pencil), offering a broadened palette and expanded possibilities for more vivid, dramatic contrasts. He just begins to explore those possibilities in this show.

"Most people would hardly notice it, but pastel is different in many ways. It has an opacity to it, so the challenge is to keep the translucency of the color pencil as well," the artist explains. In "Last Call"--the most vividly colored work in the show--the artist has not, in my view, sustained that balance. "I hadn't intended for the color to get that dense," he allows, but adds, "That's not bad, it was just a surprise." For this viewer, "Nightlight," a nocturnal view of the exterior of a Silver Spring go-go club, reaps far greater benefits from the newly enriched palette, while giving up none of its luminosity.

In this work--as in others--it is interesting to note that two different kinds of light are at play within the picture itself: the neon sign over the awning of the go-go club, and the incandescent light in the doorway. Together they give off an aura that is both seductive and timeless, unsettling and serene. The same mood pervades all of MacDonald's best works, of which there is an entire roomful here.

Not to be missed is the artist's largest drawing to date--the triptych titled "Oriental (Ocean City Maryland)," a tour de force that shows the interior of a seaside condo looking out onto the adjoining beach. The viewer--immediately transported into the scene--is hard put to make a choice between the two joyous alternatives of sitting in the sun or sitting at the desk looking out. Not surprisingly, being the hard worker he is, MacDonald has made the desk--with its coffee cup, ashtray and pristine sheet of paper at the ready--too irresistible to pass up. So is his show, which continues through May 29 at 406 Seventh St. NW, and is open 10 to 6, Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Landscapes at Rasmussen

There are strange ups and downs in the current work of Dan Kuhne, now showing at Jack Rasmussen Gallery. Once a painter of formalist abstractions (given solo exposure at the Phillips in 1973), Kuhne subsequently abandoned Washington--and abstraction--for the peace and quiet of the Magothy River in Maryland. There he began painting the wooded landscape observed from his window and front porch--swirling, expressionistic views rendered in strange, vivid colors that conveyed a moody, passionate sense of place.

"Song of a Summer Evening" in the present show is a most affecting example in this style, and "Last Postcard From the Magothy" is another strong work. But other paintings here are so empty and unsatisfying that they appear to be from another hand: "The Time When You Can't Tell," looks like a mural for a third-rate restaurant; the giant "Hemlock Roots," like a garish, badly painted nightmare in which tree roots turn to bulging arteries. Several dark, powerful etchings--all intriguing and extremely well-executed--add to the confusion about where Kuhne now stands in his development. The prints alone make the show worth seeing.

Also on view at Rasmussen, upstairs, are several wall-hung blobs combining congealed paint and gold-plated lint by Vermont artist Royce Dendler. Hung in repetitious variations under the collective title "Productions in Alchemy," (an early form of "science" devoted to the goal of turning base metals into gold), they manage to do the opposite by turning tubes of expensive paint into visual dross.

Both shows continue through April at 313 G St. NW, and hours are noon to 5, Tuesdays through Saturdays.