I guess I’ll just try to explain the reason based on my experience with Chinese calligraphy: most natives who learn how to write (or how to write better) do so with the aim of being able to write independently and without guides. Most teachers of calligraphy, who are professional calligraphers themselves, tend to teach students with that same objective in mind. Also, I’m just going to say from my experience of learning how to write well (not to brag, but my profile picture is something I wrote. It’s far from perfect, but I think it’s pretty good) that tracing stuff over and over doesn’t help if you really want to write nicely: I had to do that at school at the age of seven, and I continued for at least three years. My handwriting didn’t get much better. On that note, tracing printed characters, even if they’re a good imitation of brush-stroke characters, will probably just frustrate you after a while, because it’s almost impossible to achieve the same look without a fountain pen. Imitating characters written by hand (like those in the illustrations for your ‘Hiragana Katakana Self Study’ book) is a much more rewarding and helpful experience.
I understand the desire to use these sheets like a colouring book, but you might eventually become frustrated by an inability to follow the lines perfectly (because let’s face it, we’re human/feline, but not divine), coupled with an inability to produce anything similar without the grey guides. I have pretty good handwriting in Latin letters – I spent 6 months learning how to write like my super neat and rapid classmate at the age of 14 –, but I only managed to reach the same standard in Chinese at the age of 21 or so (though, to an extent, for lack of trying).
Perfecting kanji and kana isn’t quite the same as perfecting the Latin alphabet (and I have to admit that my kana are probably still not perfect, because I haven’t managed to figure out how to write them quickly and neatly). You need to stare at the characters and ask yourself what makes them beautiful, and then write them again and again while keeping those principles in mind. Every character is a work of art. The reason I managed to learn some of those principles is because I bought a book from China that broke down the elements that made each type of character well-proportioned and elegant. It taught me how to write well over the course of about 2-3 months at the least, and thereafter, I had to practise. (I don’t think I managed to finish the workbook though. I really should find the time to go back to it.)
Anyway, please don’t misunderstand: I don’t mean to be a wet blanket, and I’m glad to see how excited you are.
I just wanted to give you a more realistic picture if you want to take this further or to try to attain perfection. It may not be easy to master calligraphy, but it’s not that hard to reach a decent standard. With that, here are a few of the general principles for making kanji/kana beautiful:
- Almost all kanji (and kana) look like they can fit into a trapezium: flat at the base, vertical on the sides, and slanted at the top, a little lower on the left than on the right. Horizontal strokes act as though they’re on a ‘gradient’ – the higher you write a horizontal stroke, the more slanted (low on the left, high on the right) it is; the lower you write it in the character, the flatter it is.
Vertical strokes in kanji tend to like to be nicely aligned, so even if the stroke order shows you that you need to stack multiple vertical strokes on top of each other, if they’re all in the centre of the kanji, then try to make sure they’re flush with each other. Conversely, be aware that many ‘central’ vertical strokes shouldn’t actually be dead centre, because they really do make the kanji look ‘dead’. If you have to pick a side for a central vertical stroke, put it slightly off to the right.
- The beauty of kanji is about proportions, and not only those of the strokes: you don’t want to have too much white space in a character. Observe characters that you find beautiful and see how much white space there is relative to the space occupied by the strokes: I’d say that it’s always about 50-50.
- Common kanji shapes – you’ll find that many kanji still do have a unique shape that you can fit into the near-universal trapezium framework. Here are a few: circle (like 女 or 安), pentagon (要) triangle (土、生、星) and inverted triangle (重、下).
- Paramount strokes – many (if not all) kanji have a particular stroke that deserves special emphasis, and which really brings out the kanji’s character if it’s exaggerated a little. Some examples: the central stroke in 中, the 丿in 左, the 乀 (there shouldn’t be that little stub on the left) in kanji like 水、東、人 (though the central vertical strokes are often about just as important), and the topmost 一 in 右
- When kanji have multiple components, try not to let them spread out too much, and if at all possible, let strokes from one component poke into the nooks and crannies of the other. For example, in 撮, the slanted stroke on the left should enter the space under the topmost horizontal stroke of the 取.
- This last one is honestly one of the most important basics, but I know it’s hard to achieve without fairly flexible wet-nib pens (e.g. fountain pens, gel pens, large-nib BICs) – if you get the chance to learn them, don’t leave out the finishing movements on each stroke, especially the long, dramatic ones. Some strokes are sharper because of a flick of the wrist or shaped in a particular way at their ends because of a rounded motion: for example, most 一 in calligraphy are an elongated S lying down.
I guess that’s a lot to take in, but you don’t have to follow all of it. I just dug up whatever I could remember from my calligraphy course and tried to think of what I apply when I write now. In any case, all the best, and I hope you have fun.