STEPHEN Wiltshire typically goes on a helicopter ride over a city for about 20 minutes. But those 20 minutes are enough for him to remember every detail of all the buildings and roads he can see from his bird's eye view, down to the last tree, window and street lamp.
He then reproduces what he's seen in his large drawings accurately and painstakingly over several days, relying solely on his photographic memory rather than maps and pictures. This feat has made him something of an artistic sensation around the world. He's frequently invited to different cities to illustrate their skylines.
Next week, Wiltshire is set to carry out the feat here in Singapore. On Tuesday, he's taking a helicopter ride sponsored by the RSAF around the Central Business District. Subsequently, he will station himself at Paragon shopping mall from July 16 to 20 to draw the Singapore skyline on a four metre by one metre canvas. The public can watch him work at the mall's atrium from 10am to 5pm daily, with one-hour breaks at 1.30pm.
When he was three years old, Wiltshire was diagnosed with autism. Born in London in 1974, he was mute until the age of five. After that, he struggled to communicate with other people, choosing to stick to his pen and paper. Now 40, he has overcome some of that shyness but still prefers to keep conversations brief and to the point.
Asked how he recalls the details of everything he sees, he says: "When I like the view I am looking at, I can remember all the details later and can see it in my head, no problem at all. Sometimes I replay my favourite movies too."
Asked if he's heard anything about Singapore as it is his first visit here, he answers: "They say Singapore is a very modern city with lots of different styles of buildings and an amazing skyline . . . My favourite city is New York. I like the skyline, the avenues, rush hour and the people."
Wiltshire came to wider public attention when he was featured in a 1987 BBC programme where he was described as "the best child artist in Britain". At age eight, he sold his first drawing of the Salisbury Cathedral to the late British prime minister Edward Heath.
Over the years, he has been invited to several cities - New York, Tokyo, Dubai, Shanghai, Sydney, among others - where he is asked to draw the landscape after a short helicopter ride. He has had the good fortune of meeting numerous entertainment celebrities and members of royalty, including Prince Charles, when he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2006.
His favourite celebrity encounter? "With Dustin Hoffman. He is a very nice man. He played in Rain Man." Hoffman plays an autistic savant with a superb memory, winning big money at blackjack by counting cards.
Today, some of Wiltshire's works take pride of place in important buildings. His panoramic drawing of New York's East Side, for instance, was commissioned by the United Bank of Switzerland and now hangs at New York JFK Airport.
His drawing of Singapore's skyline is sponsored by Singapore Press Holdings to mark its 30th anniversary. The drawing will be completed by July 20 at 6.30pm at the Paragon and it will be presented to President Tony Tan Keng Yam as SPH's gift to Singapore's 50th birthday celebrations in 2015.
Wiltshire's drawings of other cities will also be exhibited in the atrium.
Stephen Wiltshire will be drawing Singapore's skyline at the Paragon, Orchard Road, from July 16 to 20 from 10am to 5pm daily, with one-hour lunch breaks at 1.30pm