Lines and Colors art blog

Stephen Wiltshire – memory drawing

Stephen WiltshireHere’s a question for those of you who draw from life: How often and how long do you look at your subject when drawing?

Do you look up at the model or scene frequently, grabbing a fresh impression for each tiny bit of drawing, or do you take in as much as you can in a long hard look, trying to impress a good bit of what’s in front of you on your memory before working on the drawing for several minutes?

Chances are that you glance at the subject frequently, as I do, particularly if you’re tying to be faithful to nature rather than just taking hints from reality with which to be expressive.

Occasionally, I’ve tried to draw a scene or subject from memory (as opposed to making up something from my imagination). I’ve found my ability to do this limited, but our brains may be capable of much more than we give them credit for. People talk about this in the areas of science and mathematics, but it’s relevant in drawing as much as in other areas.

Sometimes people with unusual abilities will make us look at our assumptions about what is or isn’t possible in a new light. Stephen Wiltshire is a autistic savant with a seemingly innate skill for drawing. For background, see my previous post on him.

In the past few years Wiltshire has done a few public demonstrations of his astonishing ability to draw images in detail from memory. In May of 2005 he was in Tokyo. After a half-hour helicopter tour and some additional time viewing the city’s skyline form the roof of a skyscraper (top-left), Wiltshire spent seven days drawing a 10 meter (30 ft.) panorama of Tokyo on the inside of a 360 degree curved surface, without the aid of reference or sketched notes.

You can view a video of the process on the site, from which the screen captures at left are taken. (I apologize for the terrible image quality, but they only offer the videos in Windows Media and Real Media formats, no MPEG or Quicktime. C’mon, people, get a clue.)

There are also similar but less dramatic videos from demonstrations in other cities in the Television section of Wiltshire’s site, in which he demonstrates a similar reliable ability to retain and draw large amounts of visual information with great detail.

I’ve long felt that there is a particular state of mind involved when drawing, in which we see things differently. (See my post on Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.) When I was young, I used to think of it as looking at things with my “regular eyes” or my “artist eyes”. Some of you may have experienced it as something similar. How many of us have explored the possibilities of expanding on that state of mind, culturing and developing it, in addition to working on our drawing technique?

Savants often express abilities beyond what is considered normal, but how much of what is considered “normal” is the result of assumed or acculturated limitations? At the very least, the abilities of someone like Stephen Wiltshire should give us a hint that we may all be able to train ourselves to see just a little bit more when we’re drawing, or even when we’re just walking down the street.



12 responses to “Stephen Wiltshire – memory drawing”

  1. hi, it is quite impressive no doubt..To have that skill would be quite usefull, although I think I´d expend to much, and to fast, my sketch-book sheets… =)
    It is curious that many of us have started to draw mostly based on what we really saw. But with the concern of making others see our drawings as realistic we endured in learning “symbols” that anybody could “understand”. People who draw comics, I think, are a litle more permissive to this “problem”..If we let it happen, of course. One of my personal (massive) struggles has been to disconnect my self from the years where I draw comic art more regularly and struggled to learn how to draw comic book art… That knowledge has been, obviously, extremely helpfull and it still is, especially when I want to comunnicate an ideia to a client in a quick way, but, on the other hand, it is, sometimes, difficult to disconnect from general “symbols” and draw exacly what I see. I guess, sometimes, we just put “to much mind” in it… It should be, in my opinion, always fun at a personal level, first. The rest will be, hopefully, a consequense.

  2. I think I know what you mean. I also learned to “construct” figures for comic book drawing. It’s hard sometimes when drawing from a model not to put into the drawing something that I “know” about anatomy, but am not actually seeing in the model. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing at times.

  3. This is truly fascinating. It’s a mixture of what goes on deep in the mind and, apparently, a talent for sketching.

  4. Have you ever heard of or seen an old ink drawing or painting with the initials F.K.T. on it? I keep running into dead ends when looking up information on it and was hoping you could direct me to a website that may have information on old paintings/drawings.
    Any help would be appreciated.

  5. Laura,
    You might try looking through the alphabetical listings in some of the online “virtual museums” that list numerous artists. For some links see my recent post on Samuel Palmer.

  6. Just to let you know that Stephen Wiltshire is online right now (October 11, 2006) to answer your questions at our Awares international autism conference, which goes on until October 20, 2006. You can log on at (it’s totally free!) click on Discussion and ask Stephen any questions you like. Please tell all your friends!

    Best wishes,

    Adam Feinstein

  7. Matthew Treweek Avatar
    Matthew Treweek

    Have you ever heard of or seen an old ink drawing or painting with the initials F.K.T. on it? I keep running into dead ends when looking up information on it and was hoping you could direct me to a website that may have information on old paintings/drawings.
    I would be very greatfull if you could contact me with anyinformation regarding these paintings

    best wishes

    Matthew Treweek

  8. Matthew, I’m afraid I’m drawing a blank on that one. You might try over at BibliOdyssey.

  9. mark de novellis Avatar
    mark de novellis

    Stephen Wiltshire: Recent Works

    Riverside Gallery, Richmond, London
    20 January – 11 March 2007

    Following on from his phenomenally successful exhibition Not A Camera at Orleans House Gallery in 2003, Stephen Wiltshire – one of the world’s most famous autistic artists – returns to Richmond. His retrospective presented drawings, paintings and prints spanning two decades and included recent commissions of local views. The exhibition attracted international media attention and over 32,000 visitors. Many visitors had taken to their hearts the young teenager who had appeared in the 1987 BBC documentary The Foolish Wise Ones, but few knew what had happened to him since and how he had grown and flourished as an artist. After the exhibition, Stephen continued creating and has traveled widely, including trips to Europe and Japan last year. He received an MBE for his services to the arts, and in the autumn of 2006 opened his own gallery in the heart of London.

    This new exhibition carries on where the previous one left off and shows recently created urban landscapes. The showpiece of the exhibition is a reproduction of a panorama of the Tokyo skyline (the original is over ten feet long) and an original panorama of Rome. These astonishing new works, on a far grander scale, are bold, confident and show Stephen’s virtuosity and fluid control to the greatest extent.

    Mark De Novellis
    Curator of Exhibitions and Collections
    Education and Children’s Services

    Orleans House Gallery, Riverside, Twickenham, TW1 3DJ

    Tel: 020 8831 6490

  10. As you rightly notice in a lot of your articles. Drawing is something that’s learned and not instictively there.

    The same reasoning can be applied here. The person from the above article is using his long term memory and associates what he sees with previous observations he has had.

    The same way a chess player can easily recognise over 1000 different games by just glancing over a chess board is just the same method this person uses to remember what he saw. He uses the part of the brain that ‘normal’ people use to recognise faces instantly to recognise that city.

    Often people are underdeveloped in social skills however. Since their brain focuses and their nervous system is wired on a particular ability, in his case, recognising form by means of association.

  11. To add a bit to this. This person doesn’t have to have a drawing skill or even thinks about drawing when he does this.

    He uses a flat 2d form to see things and remembers what he saw by associating similar 2d forms from his long time memory (from previous instances).

    A chess player would fail to recognise a chess board where chess pieces are place randomly. A chess player however does recognise patterns of previously studied games instantly by associating and repetition.

    Ask this person to draw what he saw from a different angle and he would fail to get anything on paper because he just uses associations, he doesn’t realise what he saw. That’s also the reason why his perspective is off by a fair bit, he sees it as a 2d plane instead of 3d objects like a person normally sees it.

  12. your pictures are not satisfactory