Fans have been flocking to David Adamson Gallery to see what popular Washington artist Kevin MacDonald has been up to since his last show, which was of drawings at Lunn Gallery three years ago. Lots, it turns out. For one thing, he has switched to oil on canvas -- a daring step for an artist who has never painted before. It is even more daring considering his solid, longstanding reputation based wholly upon color pencil and pastel drawings.

He does not disappoint, though visitors inevitably grope for comparisons, which range from the paintings of Precisionist Charles Sheeler and Washington's own Joe White to those of lyrical abstractionist Arthur Dove. The vast dissimilarities of these artists suggest not only MacDonald's new stylistic range, but also the experimental thrust of the 20 paintings on view. For though he shows an impressive ability to handle his new medium (the surfaces are matte and dry, though active brushwork is visible), MacDonald still seems to be searching for a mature style -- something true of his drawings as well. He appears surest of himself in a series of small oil studies on paper, all made preparatory to the canvases on view. They sold out opening night.

MacDonald's basic "look" and subject matter haven't changed much, though they have expanded since the earliest oil, made nine months ago, titled "Two Beds in New Hampshire." Typically unpeopled, it is but one of several paintings in which MacDonald continues to focus on quiet interiors, empty bedrooms and trim little houses set against still, flat skies dotted with clouds. One of the best paintings, "White Building," depicts his own new studio in Frederick, Md., circled by a small stream and washed in a warm, glowing light. Elsewhere, MacDonald's light is more surreal, as in "House in Baltimore," which is downright eerie.

Toying with the surreal is something MacDonald has done for some time, and one has the sense here, as before, that the results are not always consciously contrived, but rather happen as the painting goes along. There is, however, one distinct change: a tendency toward abstract patterning, which can be bold and effective in some cases (as in the strikingly reductive "Swimming Pool"), or a bit too cute, most disturbingly in "The Bathtub," which teeters dangerously close to American fake-folk. "The Bushes," though wholly unresolved, takes the most dramatically new path in the direction of Dove's expressive abstraction, and along with some other seashore views suggests important possibilities for the future.

Where all of this will lead remains to be seen. But in this show MacDonald proves once again the excitement and pure pleasure of watching him proceed. His show will continue at 406 Seventh St. through Jan. 11. Hours are 10 to 5, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Kim Murray at Govinda

Govinda Gallery in Georgetown is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a show of paintings on paper, book illustrations, commissioned bookplate designs and sculptural assemblages by Kim Murray, who has managed to keep intact since the '60s her childlike sense of wonder about things like love, fairy tales and faith. Though her formats continue to imitate the look of medieval manuscript illuminations (with biblical, literary or fairy-tale scenes at center, surrounded by elaborate decorative borders), the work has come a long way since her show five years ago, especially in terms of her ability to draw more gracefully in her chosen pre-Raphaelite linear style.

Religious subjects, both Christian and Hindu, play a major role, but it is an ecumenical, spiritual view that pervades Murray's enchanted world. Equal tenderness, for example, has been lavished upon a small, classical-style painting of the Madonna and Child and an endearing scene of the baby Krishna sitting on his mother's lap after having gotten himself into big trouble by stealing butter.

Best known for her "Illuminations from the Bhagavad-Gita," a book published a few years ago (and still available at the gallery), Murray has continued to pursue her forte, the illustrated children's book, and two such works-in-progress are the highlights of this show. The aforementioned Indian tale based on the childhood of Krishna, titled "The Butter Thief," promises to be a winner. The other, an "ABC" book, has irresistible illustrations, such as one devoted to the letter "E," featuring an Elf at an Easel painting an Elephant, while an Eagle sits on an Egg, etc.

This fantasy-filled show, which also includes Romeo and Juliet, Rapunzel, King David and a "Shrine for Shiva and Consort," continues at 1227 34th St. NW through December. Hours are 11 to 5, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Cottingham's Photo-Realism

Though the whole idea of making Photo-realist paintings seems a rather exhausted enterprise, there's no question that "sign" painter Robert Cottingham is awfully good at it. His show at Fendrick Gallery centers on "Barrera-Rosa's," a 14-foot-long painting of a Los Angeles street filled with storefronts and (as always with Cottingham) emphasizes the signs over the doorways: "Ratskellar," "J&S Liquor," and "Barrera-Rosa's Restaurant -- Mexican Food." Each sign is given equal billing in a meticulously made painting that also captures architectural details, street lights and one-way signs in a nonhierarchical way. The result: a document of 20th-century American urban iconography locked for all time into a tight, well-made composition. The question is, what does any of this make us think, or feel, apart from some admiration for Cottingham's dogged persistence and craftsmanship?

Cottingham works from slides, which he projects, draws, rearranges and finally paints in his studio on a Connecticut farm, and the distance from the original site may explain their passionless, clinical look. There are some very satisfying works here, but, oddly enough, they are among the black-and-white drawings, etchings and drypoints based on the completed "Barrera-Rosa's" painting. In these graphic works, no longer preoccupied with matters of color or organization, Cottingham seems to relax, allowing us to see both how well he can draw in a soft, freehand way and how deeply he feels about what he sees. They are refreshing indeed, and will be on view through Dec. 16 at 3059 M St. NW. Hours are 10 to 5. End Notes

The Arlington Arts Center at 3550 Wilson Blvd. always brings out good emerging talent in its annual, areawide juried painting shows. Washington-born sculptor Martin Puryear, now of Chicago, chose the 43 works by 37 area artists, on view through Dec. 20. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 to 5.