Still life painting gives the artist full control over his subject. Provided the still life compositions have been set up properly with a steady light source north-facing window, or artificial lights and reflectors then the artist is free to concentrate on rendering what he sees.
The first thing to ensure is that the composition is indeed how you want it. To make doubly sure, you may wish to draw careful sketches, since the effect of a painting is very different from simply looking at the subject source. Then you will probably want to analyze the tonal values and ensure you have a pleasing pattern of dark and light. Then come the color schemes, where you will work out the palette beforehand, either making oil sketches or at least laying out the main colors in a rough approximation to their arrangement in the final painting.
Now you will need to finalize the composition and check the lighting is correct. Many artists will not want to paint exactly what they see in fact, probably won't be able to unless aiming at photo-realism but it is very difficult to paint anything that cannot be seen properly. Spend a good time on the setting up your still life compositions, therefore: it's crucial.
How you proceed now depends on your aims and oil painting techniques. The old master approach of repeated layers of paint and glazes is time consuming, but allows for great control and variety of effects. You will see how beautifully Zurbarán has painted the oranges in their wicker basket ('Still Life: Lemons, Oranges and a Rose'. 1633. Norton Simon Museum. California). They have a a significance that such objects do not normally possess in real life, perhaps because so much of Zurbarán's work was done for religious orders.
Quite different is the detail from the Chardin still life ('The Silver Goblet'. c. 1759. Musée du Louvre. Paris). for which perhaps poetry is the word that comes to mind. Again this is careful and long-considered painting, making full use of layers and glazes. The third detail is a tiny section from the work from a painter who caused a a great deal of trouble: Edouard Manet: his 'A Bar at the Folies-Bergère' (1882. The Courtauld Gallery. London). It is bravura painting, only roughly modeled but done with great panache. That was Manet's way, provocative to the respectable bourgeoisie, and to the Academy that stipulated a high finish.
If your approach is direct painting, then some of these maxims (summarized from Cateura's book below) may be helpful.
1. In composition, objects can either go across a shallow depth of field or into the canvas.
2. Decide on center of interest. Don't light all objects equally.
3. Decide on the concept, e.g. movement through space. Give the objects mass. Paint the shadows.
4. Everything has a distinctive shape. Get these in first and don't lose them.
5. Start with your center of interest.
6. Remember that, for objects to be lighted, the surface on which they rest also has to be lighted.
7. If the still life looks somewhat dull and monochrome, then add another color: try the complement.
8. Understand your subject. Decide what it is you want to bring out. Next, how you will do it. Then paint that process.
9. The ground plane is important. Establish this early and work up from it.
10. Objects have a line of shadow beneath them, which is commonly the darkest in the picture.
These are among the more useful reference sites and books.
1. 1art.com. A practical demonstration of old master techniques. Alexei Antonov has strong (not to say reactionary) views on modern art, but his own work shows what is possible with traditional painting techniques.
2. 'Oil painting demo - Alla prima - Still life' by D Golding. YouTube. Alla prima on a toned ground.
'3. Still Life in Oils: An Insight into the Artist's Creative Process Seeing, Thinking, Acting' by Theodora Philcox. Sterling Publications. 2003. Covers new and traditional forms of oil painting as practiced by a variety of artists: the author adds her comments and explanations to those artists reviewed.
4. 'Problem Solving for Oil Painters' by Gregg Kreutz. Watson Guptill. 1997. Deals with the common problems oil painters face by illustrating what has gone wrong in a picture, and how to put it right. Most aspects covered.
5. 'Oil Painting Secrets from a Master' by Linda Cateura. Watson Guptill. 1984. David Leffel's paintings, that form the subject of Cateura's study, are rather heavy compositions in the manner of eighteenth century still lifes. Nonetheless, the topics covered are applicable to still life painting generally, and the advice suggests what you should check in your own work.
6. 'A Solid Start in Oil Painting: Still Life' with Craig Nelson. YouTube. Several demonstrations on site.
7. 'How to Paint Still Life Fruit 'by Richard Robinson'. 'AOL. Several helpful 'how to' videos.
8. 'Creating a Powerful Still Life Painting: 25 Tips to Enhance Your Still Life Art' by Joe Gyurcsak and Lisa Dinhofer. Artist Daily. Offers free ebook.
9. 'Painting of Russia.' Art Volga Gallery. Treatments differing from western approaches.