Plasmonic resonances in metallic nanoparticles have been used since antiquity to colour glasses. The use of metal nanostructures for surface colourization has attracted considerable interest following recent developments in plasmonics. However, current top-down colourization methods are not ideally suited to large-scale industrial applications. Here we use a bottom-up approach where picosecond laser pulses can produce a full palette of non-iridescent colours on silver, gold, copper and aluminium. We demonstrate the process on silver coins weighing up to 5 kg and bearing large topographic variations (∼1.5 cm). We find that colours are related to a single parameter, the total accumulated fluence, making the process suitable for high-throughput industrial applications. Statistical image analyses of laser-irradiated surfaces reveal various nanoparticle size distributions. Large-scale finite-difference time-domain computations based on these nanoparticle distributions reproduce trends seen in reflectance measurements, and demonstrate the key role of plasmonic resonances in colour formation.