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A toned canvas can be considered an underpainting though if you start it with a technique called “tachism”, by creating random variations (stains) on the canvas, that you interpret and then develop from there. More information regarding that technique is here: http://leonardoswall.com/Chapter2.php .
Separate your colors into “shadows”, “midtones” and “lights” (value wise) and use different brushes for each type. When you have used a brush for the shadows with a heavy umber or blue color and then using it for the lights will tone it down very quickly and mudden the saturation of the very subtle color you had in the lights in the first place. You can then further separate brushes by hue (red, yellow, blue). The color you should protect and isolate most is yellow, because that’s the most sensitive (the spectral presence of yellow is very small and so it’s very easy to pull it to either red or blue).
I don’t know that much about oil pastels, but when I do my painting I’m also not using the brush cleaner each and every time I put color on. The brush cleaner (in my case a jar of mineral spirits) contains a solvent plus all the colors combined, so it would definitely muddy out the colors for every brush I put in it. I like to separate my brushes as above, sometimes split them out a bit more by hue and then at intervals clean them with a bar of painter’s soap inbetween when I move to a different section of the painting.
General idea: look for moments in your workflow where you this muddying happens in the shadows with midtones and highlights or the hues. Then introduce methods to separate between the values and hues in those stages by intermediate (proper) cleaning or adopting a different workflow to how you achieve the overall goal.
If you don’t have the money or the practical availability of models, then photographs are definitely ok. What all the others said in this thread, but also… A photograph is a fleeting moment in time, the best that your painting can do is capture that fleeting moment instead of the living, breathing, moving subject that you have available in capturing from life. The number one thing is “are you enjoying yourself with your creative abilities?”. If yes, then it’s ok. Even with photography there are many challenges to overcome. The typical photograph is overlit, uses fill lights to kill all the shadows, leaving your subject in one mass of midtone and highlight that’s difficult to make a good portrait of. Photography for painting is different from “photography” itself.
Art is not a competition, so “better” or “good” vs. “bad” does not exist at all. What matters is that you use the tools now that allow you to learn and express yourself and then, once you have the capabilities / availabilities, go for the other options you have available. “Projecting a photograph” is the most frowned upon and I agree that probably, we should print this out and copy the photograph using sight-sizing and other techniques to allow our “eye” to be trained and utilized in the process. The exception to that rule is when you “composed” the photograph in the first place, for example by designing the composition using a digital art form. Then it’s just about transferring that into a painting in a different kind of workflow.
Yes, I see them tone it in the studio. Look for Andrew Tischler on Youtube, who has plenty of plein air sessions on his channel and you’ll see he tones the canvas with burnt sienna reduced with mineral spirits prior to going out into the field.
An underpainting is more a reflection of what you see in front of you, even if there are variations in there I wouldn’t call it an underpainting. But variations in the toned canvas are totally ok.