Most of us find it hard enough to take a good photograph of our cars, let alone draw it perfectly to scale with incredible detail and exacting light and shade. But that's exactly what Stephen Wiltshire was able to do at the age of eight. And he still does it now at the age of 34 when he sees a classic American motor from the 50s through to the 80s. But unlike the rest of us who would need to sit down for hours in front of the vehicle with pencil in one hand and eraser poised in the other. Stephen can create instant masterpieces after the briefest of glimpses. Take his Las Vegas at night, Los Angeles Traffic or Some Yellow New York Taxis at Park Avenue at Night: these have all been created from a moment's inspiration, almost like a photographic memory.
But where the rest of us would struggle to remember the merest of detail, Stephen's brain would appear to lack the ability to forget them. So everything, literally, goes down on paper making our perception of the images a peculiar balance between characteristic drawing and photograph. Stephen produces artworks in minutes that others train for decades to be able to create.
Seeing in perspective
But it's been a very long journey for this 34-year-old artist from London. From an early age Stephen Wiltshire was diagnosed as being autistic after remaining mute and insular. At the age of five he was sent to Queensmill School for children with special needs in the city, where, besides suffering from regular violent tantrums, it was quickly noticed how much he enjoyed drawing, and not just the typical scribbles of a 5-year-old. The animals, buses and buildings he created had near perfect form and perspective.
At the age of eight he started to draw cityscapes and began his obsession with cars and illustrations of them (his knowledge of everything automotive is almost encyclopaedic). One of the few ways to get him to talk was to take away his drawing materials so he would have to ask for them. His first word was paper. By the age of nine he was speaking fluently.
Since 1987, when the BBC's QED documentary programme first brought him to the British nation's attention, he has featured in many other programmes about the amazing talents of autistic savants. Sir Hugh Casson of the Royal Academy in London has studied Stephen and says, 'From the first mark, the pencil moves as quickly and as surely as a sewing-machine-the line spinning from the pencil point like embroidery,
Stephen is the first autistic savant in the world whose work has been recorded and published since his childhood. His third book, Floating Cities (1991), was number 1 on the Sunday Times bestseller list. And his artistic ability is not just limited to certain subjects like cars, street scenes and city skylines. In 2001 he was flown by helicopter over London and subsequently drew a detailed and perfectly scaled aerial illustration of a four sqaure mile area within 3 hours; it included 12 historic landmarks and over 200 other structures. Then in 2005 in Tokyo following a similar flight he drew a 10m long canvas. Since then he has drawn Rome, Hong Kong and Frankfurt. But he says his favourite city is New York because he loves the chaos of the streets with fire engines, traffic and the yellow taxi cabs everywhere. When it comes to the panoramas he says, 'it takes me a few minutes to memorise the cityscapes and then about three days to complete the drawing', he says. Yet for similar A3-sized drawings, Stephen can churn out a work of art in around one hour (if it's an unfamiliar cityscape it can take around 40 minutes to memorise it!), and he can sell them for more than £1,000 (AED7,000+), so exceptional is his ability. He has been called the leading architectural artist in the world.
Stephen Wiltshire is a phenomenon as well as being very likable and unassuming man, and between 7th and 11th April this year you will be able to see his work live when he visits Dubai and creates a gallery of the city's skyline which will be auctioned off to raise funds for the Dubai Autism Centre.