The brightest and most vivid colours in nature arise from the interaction of light with surfaces that exhibit periodic structure on the micro- and nanoscale. In the wings of butterflies, for example, a combination of multilayer interference, optical gratings, photonic crystals and other optical structures gives rise to complex colour mixing. Although the physics of structural colours is well understood, it remains a challenge to create artificial replicas of natural photonic structures. Here we use a combination of layer deposition techniques, including colloidal self-assembly, sputtering and atomic layer deposition, to fabricate photonic structures that mimic the colour mixing effect found on the wings of the Indonesian butterfly Papilio blumei. We also show that a conceptual variation to the natural structure leads to enhanced optical properties. Our approach offers improved efficiency, versatility and scalability compared with previous approaches.