Drawing from the mind's eye: Stephen Wiltshire

Stephen Wiltshire
Stephen Wiltshire

Stephen Wiltshire’s unique artistic talents have fascinated many people worldwide. He has the ability to view a city’s skyline from up in a helicopter or by just walking through the streets, and then creating panoramic drawings of that city entirely from memory. His drawings are precise, often accurate to the smallest detail. Currently, many of his drawings and paintings have sold for thousands of dollars.

Stephen Wiltshire was born in London in 1974 to Geneva and Colvin Wiltshire. When he was 3, he was diagnosed as autistic. His father, Colvin, died in a motorcycle accident shortly after the family received young Stephen’s diagnosis.

At age 5, Stephen attended a primary school for special needs children, the Queensmill School in London. It was there that he expressed an interest in drawing. In fact, drawing became his primary means of communication until he learned to speak around age 9 (his teachers would take away his art supplies so that he would be forced to verbally ask for them back).

Wiltshire’s teachers began to take special interest in him and encouraged him to keep drawing. Among his early projects was a group of drawings depicting London landscapes, one landscape for each letter. He was also very interested in drawing animals, automobiles, buildings and cityscapes devastated by earthquakes.

As the years went on, more people learned of the boy’s extraordinary talents. He appeared on a television show (“The Foolish Wise Ones”) and was introduced to a literary agent interested publishing in some of his drawings in a book. To date, he has published 5 books: Drawings (1987); Cities (1989); Floating Cities (1991); American Dream (1993); and Stephen Wiltshire 2008 Catalog (2008).

Wiltshire’s literary agent arranged for him to visit New York City — his first trip overseas. Wiltshire was fascinated by the city and it provided him with plenty of inspiration for drawings. He even stated that someday he planned to live there:

“I’m going to live in New York [some day]. I’ve designed my penthouse on Park Avenue.”

Throughout the 1990s, Wiltshire embarked on drawing tours around Europe, including Venice, Amsterdam, Moscow and Lenningrad. He even accepted an invitation from a Tokyo television station to take a drawing tour in Japan.

In the 2000s, Wiltshire took on drawing challenges, where he’d take a short helicopter ride over a city and then return to his studio to draw what he’d seen from memory. In one such challenge, he completed a detailed 10-meter-long drawing of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor in one week — after viewing the harbor from up in a helicopter for 20 minutes.

Wiltshire’s work have seen worldwide exhibition. The Orleans House Gallery in London held a major showing of his works in 2003, displaying drawings from his early childhood to the present. The attendance rate for this exhibit (about 30,000 people) was the largest that gallery had had at the time.

Stephen Wiltshire's Drawing of Times Square
Stephen Wiltshire's Drawing of Times Square

In 2006, Queen Elizabeth named Wiltshire as a member of the Order of the British Empire. He now has his own gallery in the Royal Opera Arcade in Pall Mall, London.

What inspires me the most about Stephen Wiltshire is that his abilities remind us of the sheer power of the human brain, and what it is capable of. Dr. Allan Snyder, a professor of Science at the Australian National University and director of the Centre for the Mind, has studied savants and how they develop their extraordinary talents. His conclusion was that many savants have access to certain, more “primative” parts of the brain that process sensory information such as light, sound and numbers.

In most people, these parts of the brain are “locked” away by the normally functioning front temporal lobe. In savants, however, the front temporal lobe is shut down (either wholly or partially), allowing the person to rely on the previously “locked” areas of the brain, according to Dr. Snyder. These parts of the brain are often responsible for exceptional artistic, mathematical and musical abilities.

Dr. Snyder’s theory was further supported by an experiment that involved shutting down the frontal lobes of 17 “non-savant” volunteers. The left temporal lobe was “switched off” using magnetic stimulation. 5 out of the 17 volunteers displayed improved memorization, calendar calculation and drawing abilities.

If Dr. Snyder’s theory is true, then all of us have this abilitiy within our brains, savant and non-savants alike. Perhaps some artists who are not savants have already figured out how to tap into these “locked” regions. Who knows? If you could tap into the hidden regions of your brain, just imagine what you’d be capable of!

To view Stephen Wiltshire’s panoramic drawings and other works, head on over to stephenwiltshire.co.uk.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

3 Comments

  1. He is SOOO amazing! I’d never even heard of him until now, so great post. I wish I could draw like that…I just can’t imagine how someone could memorize a whole range of buildings and then draw them to scale so quickly like that!

  2. Very inspiring, thanks! His drawings all look like photographs. It really is amazing, isn’t it? I wonder what kind of hidden talents I have??? I think art education should be given more emphasis in schools, everyone is born with the ability to draw. we just lose that ability if it isn’t nurtured because the our brain thinks it isn’t important. I’m so glad his parents and teachers encouraged him and that he was surrounded by so many supportive people.

  3. This is very inspiring. I can’t imagine how he is able draw like that. It makes me realize how we aren’t always using our brains to full capacity. There’s no excuse for half-hearted effort.

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