On June 15, 2014, the day his creative life would begin to change, Adam Padilla sat in the living room of his Manhattan apartment, alone and hungry. His wife, Willow, had gone to a cousin’s roller-skating party on Long Island. Padilla awaited a Seamless order from Noodles 28, his favorite Chinese place.
And across the room, on a shelf, sat an empty green notebook he had recently bought. He felt the green notebook’s presence. Its disapproval.
The Chinese food arrived, and Padilla began to eat a hot and sour wonton soup and a chicken dish. The food was delicious, but as Padilla sat there, he still didn’t feel good. In a deeper sense, he wasn’t sated. He felt full of unsatisfied desires, full of id. And across the room, the empty green notebook stared at him.
Finally, Padilla walked across the room, past the TV, and snatched the notebook from the shelf. He brought it over to the ottoman, set it down, and stared back at it. Alright, buddy, it’s you and me, he thought. He opened up the notebook to a white page. A beautiful, crisp, white page. Anything could go on that page, he thought. Anything.
It was a terrifying, paralyzing thought.
Many years before, drawing had come naturally to Padilla. When he was 5, his preschool teacher asked the students to draw a cat and a house. Padilla was the only one to draw a large cat in front of a small house, giving a sense of receding perspective. The praise from his teacher was like a drug.
As the years went by, Padilla kept drawing. In high school, he’d doodle pictures of teachers in compromising positions. One science teacher made the mistake of mentioning, in an aside, that he loved Cool Whip; Padilla soon drew a picture of the teacher eating his way out of a hot tub full of it. It was passed around so much that practically his whole school saw it. Predictably, Padilla wound up at the Pratt Institute, an art school, for college.
After graduating in 2000, Padilla found himself working more and more on a Wacom design tablet or in Photoshop. He started to freelance for various branding agencies. At first it seemed like nothing but a blessing: He was making money doing what he loved. Art! Especially when he was starting out, working with edgy, upstart brands, his clients liked there to be a rawness about Padilla’s work. Recreational drawing fell by the wayside; why draw for free when he could draw for money?
But as he climbed the career ladder and joined a few major organizations–the New Jersey Nets, then Marquis Jet–Padilla found that he increasingly had to adapt to other people’s visions. Clients were less interested in Padilla’s creative ideas, and more interested in his ability to execute. He didn’t blame larger brands for simply wanting to get their messaging across. And he had to make a living, after all. But still, he felt his “soul was being squeezed out.”
At nights he’d tell Willow he felt like a phony. He’d always introduced himself to people as an artist. Now he wasn’t so sure. He felt more like a hired gun.
By 2012, he cofounded the BrandFire agency. More money was coming in, but there was an “unfulfilled longing” for more creativity in his life. He went back to his parents’ basement in Muttontown, Long Island, and found a dusty set of paints that he brought back to Manhattan. He made a handful of paintings that he wasn’t happy about. He couldn’t get into a rhythm. “I suck,” he’d say, moping, to his wife. “I was never any good . . . ”
Then one Sunday in May 2014, Padilla and Willow wandered into Kinokuniya, a Japanese bookstore. Willow picked up a green leather journal and showed it to him. Each page was about 8.5 by 5.5 inches, or half a piece of printer paper. And each page had two small lines listing the days. The first page said “Day 1” at the top, “Day 2” at the midpoint, and so on–two days per page, on through 366 days. It was a daily sketchbook.
Padilla bought it, excited at the idea of incentivizing himself to doodle every day. But when he got home, he felt intimidated. He put it on the shelf in the living room. Weeks went by. He didn’t feel ready. Until June 15, the day his wife went to the roller-skating party and left her husband alone.
Padilla stared at the white, perfect page, full of terrifying possibility. Then he took a pen, and he made a single stroke: a curved line.
This, already, was daunting. He had taken something that could have been anything, and he had now dramatically reduced the number of things that it could possibly be. He remembered a quote by his favorite living artist, Gerhard Richter, about how with each stroke of a work of art, opportunity shrinks and constrains. The whiteness of the blank page had been perfect in its way; now there was a mark that presented new burdens and possibilities.
He looked at the curved line. It might be an arm, or an elbow, or a wing. He thought the line was a woman’s leg. So he drew another line–the shape of her other leg. More lines, more decisions, increasingly fewer opportunities. More mistakes and efforts to fix the mistake that created new mistakes that needed their own fixing. Padilla soldiered on, following his feeling.
The resulting image of a cartoon man devouring a woman, like a shark. It was raw and strange. He liked it.
And then Padilla did something to help ensure that he would fill the rest of the notebook, as he hoped he would. He took out his phone, snapped a picture of the doodle, and uploaded it to Instagram. “First entry in my new sketchbook,” he commented. “Will doodle something every day for a year.” He included a quote often attributed to Goethe that begins, “I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element.” He added two hashtags: #hunger #adampadilla365.
“It was almost a pep talk to myself,” he recalls. The post got a handful of likes, which he found gently affirming.
The next day, June 16, he sat down and drew an image of a small child entering a dark room full of monsters. On the 17th, he doodled a man drawing faces on balloons as he released them into the sky. On the 18th, he drew a young boy climbing a great, winding wall. That one garnered over a hundred likes.
He was doing it.
Over the next few weeks and months, his style evolved. Eschewing pen, which bled through to the other side of the paper, he opted for charcoal. Finding that charcoal wiped away too easily, he moved to pencil. Gradually he introduced color pencil. Eventually he got in the habit of leaving one pencil in the frame as he snapped the finished drawing: a portrait of Robin Williams, an image of a motorcycle, or half-eaten cookie, or insect. He started to go on the feeds of other artists presenting their work on Instagram, chatting, befriending. He went to an in-person meetup for Instagram enthusiasts. He began to get followers from outside his social circle. “You have 750 Instagram followers!” his sister said one day. “You’re famous!”
His work grew in complexity; his 10-minute doodles became hourlong drawings. At the one-year mark, he reaffirmed his commitment, moving from the green journal to a red one. He gained many more followers.
The would-be artist who was blocked in mid-2014 today has over 35,000 Instagram followers.
Some follow him just to enjoy his work. Others follow him to emulate him. One Instagram artist, Shaun D’Souza, sought out Padilla as a mentor, and began to imitate his style, using the hashtag #padillainspired.
For Padilla, the daily drawing is still something he needs to push himself to do. He recommits to it each day. It’s not always fun. Sometimes he gets home from a long day at work and would like nothing more than to goof off with his baby, who is nearly 1 year old. But he knows he’s made a public commitment. “It’s like a workout,” he says. Every day he stares at that blank page once more and thinks, “Is today finally the day that I can’t think of something?” Then he looks back at his feed and remembers, “Jesus, every one of these felt like my last drawing, and none of them were.”
Sometimes he’ll see someone comment enviously on one of his drawings. He’ll click through and see that that person has only posted a handful of his or her own. “It’s almost like they’re saying they’re waiting to be as good as me in order to be able to draw every day,” he says. “It’s the total opposite. I’m not as good as me. You have to practice every day.”
A desire, a notebook, a public commitment. These were enough to launch Adam Padilla’s newly creative life–not that it doesn’t remain a struggle. “At least now I’m struggling in the open,” he says.