Still life, by Mino Maccari, 1926, oil on cardboard. Photo by Remo Bardazzi/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

Still life painting is a very popular genre that has been important in Western culture since the 16th century. It is defined as a two-dimensional artwork that depicts inanimate objects, or objects that do not move. These can include a whole range of things: natural forms such as fruits, vegetables, shells, rocks, leaves, flowers, twigs, and dead animals even, as well as man-made forms such as tools, glasses, vases, baseball gloves, toys, jewelry, boxes, books, cupcakes, etc. Because the availability of subject matter is endless, a still life painter has no dearth of material for painting.

A still life can be an assortment of random objects, or can be a carefully planned combination of things with a particular theme, such as food, sports, or art supplies. The objects can be symbolic or chosen purely for their aesthetic value. A still life can even be an indirect self-portrait, comprised of objects that represent something about you.

Many of the things to consider in setting up a still life are the same you would consider for other subjects, such as landscape painting.

Here are 5 things to keep in mind:

1. Set up your still life on the opposite side of your dominant hand so you do not have to be looking over your painting arm to see the still life. Think of it as positioning yourself so that your body is open to the still life.

2. The light source is very important. Will you use natural or artificial light? Natural light can be beautiful but keep in mind that the light will change, so you should take a picture of your still life to use for reference if your painting takes longer than an hour or so.

If using artificial light, what kind of bulb is it? Different kinds of bulbs cast different colored light, some cooler, some warmer.

In either case, think about the placement of the still life arrangement relative to the light source. The more directly overhead the light source is, the smaller the shadows will be; a light source from the side gives longer shadows. A strong light source from the side and somewhat higher than the still-life often gives the most pleasing results.

3. The shadows created by your still life objects are important shapes within the composition, and a strong light source will create more definitive and deeper shadows, as well as creating greater contrast in the form values of the objects. This is helpful for the beginner. 

4. The Rule of Thirds is an important compositional device, both when composing a painting and when setting up the still life. You want your main, or most dominant, object to be placed along one of the imaginary lines that divides your arrangement into thirds horizontally and vertically (like a tic-tac-toe board). This will help create a composition that is pleasing to the eye.

5. Use an odd number of items in your arrangement. This tends to be more interesting and helps move your eye around the composition. Think of your composition in terms of creating a triangle of shapes to keep your eye moving from one point to the next. For a simple still life, start with just one object and its cast shadow.

For more things to consider see Tips for Setting Up a Still Life: Part 2.